AZUSA, Calif. – Azusa Pacific used a 22-9 run over the final 6 minutes to topple Fresno Pacific University, 68-57, in an important Golden State Athletic Conference game at Felix Event Center Tuesday evening.
The victory, which is Azusa Pacific’s season-best fifth straight, keeps the Cougars in the hunt for a possible GSAC championship and NAIA Tournament berth, while Fresno Pacific, which just 3 weeks ago was battling for the GSAC lead, continues a free-fall from title contention and the national spotlight, losing its fourth straight and fifth in the past 6 games.
Azusa Pacific led for the first 30 minutes of the game but had to scrap and hang on throughout the entire contest. The Cougars could never shake the Sunbirds, whose methodical offensive play frustrated any Azusa Pacific attempt to pull away. Fresno Pacific finally took its first lead at 44-42 on a Kevin McCaughey lay-up with 10:14 left in the game. The Sunbirds were still up 48-46 following a pair of McCaughey free throws before the Cougars began their game-winning stretch run.
Senior guard Matt Oliver and junior swingman Kimarley Williams combined for 14 points – 7 per man -- during the game-winning run. Williams, who finished with 16 points off the bench, drained one of his career-high 4 three-pointers to give Azusa Pacific the lead for good at 49-48. Oliver followed with a nifty double-pump contested lay-up and then canned his only trey of the evening and just his fifth in the past 10 games to give the Cougars a 4-point advantage at 56-52 with 2 minutes to play.
“I wasn’t thinking about the shot”, said Oliver of his important 3-pointer. “That’s the one thing that helped me the most. I saw the opening and took the shot. Sometimes you’re waiting and waiting for the shot, and you think too much before you shoot.”
The Sunbirds followed with a series of 3 back-breaking turnovers in a 90-second span, and none was bigger than Davon Roberts’ theft of an errant McCaughey midcourt pass that Roberts turned into a breakaway lay-up and a convincing 60-53 Cougar advantage with a minute to play.
Roberts, who for good reason was the focus of the Sunbird defense, still finished with team highs of 21 points, 8 rebounds, 4 assists, 4 steals and no turnovers.
“He did that against a team that was doing everything it could to not allow him a touch”, said Cougar coach Justin Leslie. “He has just been relentless and so consistent with his effort. He is really starting to get a great feel for how he can impact the game. He did it through intangibles tonight – passing, rebounding, making his free throws, and moving without the ball. It was a very good performance.”
The first half of play was anything but a work of art. The Cougars led 30-27 at the break by the simple fact they out-scored Fresno Pacific 8-1 at the free throw line. Both teams were a paltry 10-for-25 (.385) from the floor. Azusa Pacific missed lay-ups, and Fresno Pacific clanked three-pointers, 11 to be exact. Had it not been for Roberts, who came into the game as a 58-percent shooter at the line but was a perfect 6-for-6 in the first half, the Cougars likely would not have had the lead.
“Defensively, Fresno Pacific did a good job of making our shots around the basket hard,” said Leslie. “They collapsed multiple players on the post. We have good post players but against 2 or 3 guys every time it’s hard to finish at a high percentage.”
In a reversal of play from their Jan. 15th meeting in Fresno in which the Sunbirds made 4 of their first 5 three-pointers to run away from Azusa Pacific for a 66-59 victory, the Cougars kept an early lid on Fresno Pacific’s 3-point shooting tonight, moving out to a 6-0 lead while the Sunbirds missed their first 4 attempts from beyond the arc.
“The way Fresno plays with their tempo, if you get behind its very hard to catch up”, added Leslie, who notches his 18th victory of the season which is more wins than any of the other 4 previous first-year Cougar coaches achieved. “We didn’t score a lot, but the most important thing is that after 6 minutes we were ahead. We didn’t play great offense but we got stops and that enabled us to establish what we wanted to do.”
Oliver finished with 9 points while junior center David Burgess chipped in with 8 points and 7 rebounds.
Fresno Pacific was paced by a balanced effort. Jordan Farley led with 11 points while McCaughey and Andrew David each had 10 points. Leading scorer Adrian Sanchez was limited to just 3 shots and 10 points.
Azusa Pacific now turns its attention to Vanguard University, which is tied with the Cougars for third place in the GSAC, both a game behind front-running Concordia University and California Baptist University. The 2 square off in a crucial meeting Saturday (Feb. 23) at “The Pit” in Costa Mesa. To the victor goes a likely bid to the NAIA Tournament and a continued spot in the race for the GSAC title, while the loser will face a steeper uphill climb to Kansas City, site of the NAIA Tournament.
“This is the biggest week of our season” said Leslie. “Vanguard is playing better than anyone else in our conference right now. They present the stiffest test that we have faced in a while. They are really playing well, and it’s at their place. It’s going to be tough.”
“It’s the game of the season right now” said Oliver. “It’s the 2 hottest teams in the GSAC. We’re playing really well right now, and they are too, but we’re definitely a different team than they played before.”
Until then, the Cougars can enjoy the fruits of tonight’s victory which pushes their record to 18-8 overall, 11-5 in the GSAC. Fresno Pacific falls to 17-10 overall, 8-9 in the GSAC.