AZUSA, Calif. – They’re lurking in the shadows, and they carry with them a deadly mystique.
Azusa Pacific, once an afterthought in the GSAC race, is now the hottest team in the conference after cruising to an 82-70 victory over San Diego Christian College Tuesday evening at the Felix Event Center. The victory is the Cougars’ seventh in the past 8 games and moves them into third place in the GSAC, a game-and-a-half out of the lead. A program that has won 13 of the past 15 conference titles since 1993 is back in the hunt for yet another crown, and all the other contenders can’t help but take notice and wonder if history will repeat itself.
Playing their second game in 3 days, the Cougars seemingly lacked punch and energy in its play. Still, they managed a double-digit lead over the final 21 minutes of the game and 12 different Cougars got to play.
Center David Burgess fashioned his best game as a Cougar, and it came on his birthday, tallying career-highs of 24 points and 16 rebounds against San Diego Christian to register his fifth double-double of the season and his second in the past 4 games. His steady emergence over the past 8 games (averaging 11.9 points and 10.9 rebounds in that stretch) typifies the team’s play as a whole.
“Dave has consistently been getting better,” said Cougar head coach Justin Leslie, “and he is really starting to take personal ownership for what happens on the defensive end. It was only a matter of time before it carried over to the offensive end. He is much more fluid in his moves, and his comfort level and decision-making is much better.”
Burgess scored Azusa Pacific’s first 6 points and 8 of the team’s first 13 as the Cougars scooted out to a 13-7 lead less than 4 minutes into the game. Midway through the half, he scored on 3 straight possessions to give the Cougars their first double-digit lead at 34-22 following a lay-up.
Moments later Mike Danielian drained with his first 3-pointer of the game to push the Cougar advantage to 13. He closed the half with another trey to give Azusa Pacific a 45-33 cushion at the break.
Over the final 20 minutes of play, Azusa Pacific could not put away SDCC, displaying instead a lethargic effort that resulted a toe-to-toe tangle with the Hawks and never enjoying more than a 15-point lead on a 3 different occasions.
“We have several guys who are sick and haven’t practiced,” said Cougar head coach Justin Leslie, “and it showed. We weren’t crisp in anything, in simple things like passing and catching. We couldn’t execute very well tonight.”
Of course Hawk forward Chris Neal wouldn’t let the Cougars runaway, scoring a game-high 31 points on an amazing 11-for-15 shooting clip that included a 5-for-6 effort at the arc. He was a perfect 6-for-6 in the second half with a trio of treys.
“Man, what a game he had,” added Leslie. “Chris just owned us. He made some shots that were totally contested, and there were some where we screwed up on defense and that was all the space he needed. He played a phenomenal game.”
And perhaps the Hawks were aided in their second-half battle with Azusa Pacific by the return of the GSAC’s leading scorer and rebounder Bayo Arigbon, who sat out the first half and didn’t get off the bench until 14 minutes were left in the game.
“San Diego Christian had some time to prep for this game, and it showed,” said Leslie. “They did some things that bothered us. They were by far the sharper team on the court tonight.”
Burgess’ frontcourt mate, senior forward Davon Roberts, continued his amazing play of late with 19 points, 15 of which came in the second half when he was 7-of-9 from the floor.
“San Diego did a good job of collapsing on Davon in the first half”, said Leslie. “In the second half, as usual, he was assertive and the results speak for themself.”
Over the past 3 games, Roberts is averaging 25.7 points and 10.7 rebounds.
Danielian finished with 13 points and Todd Martin chipped in with 10.
For the third straight game, Azusa Pacific out-rebounded the foe by more than 17 caroms. The Cougars collected 43 rebounds and crashed the offensive board for 16 extra shots that translated into 20 second-chance points.
Azusa Pacific must now turn up its level of execution. Next week, the Cougars host Fresno Pacific University before visiting Vanguard University in a pair of games between teams all fighting for a spot in the NAIA Top 25 Coaches’ Poll.
“This is where the first time through conference play we dropped back-to-back games,” said Leslie. “I’m very concerned where our team is going to be going into next week. There is no way to sugarcoat it; next week will define our season. We have to play well.”
Fortunately for the Cougars, their play of the past 3 weeks is the best in the GSAC.
With tonight’s win, Azusa Pacific improves to 17-8 overall, 10-5 in the GSAC. San Diego Christian falls to 4-18 overall, 1-13 in the GSAC.