COSTA MESA, Calif. – Azusa Pacific may not be in the lead of the Golden State Athletic Conference, but now there is no arguing that the Cougars are playing the best basketball of anyone in the GSAC.
The Cougars got out on top early and never looked back, employing their most complete effort of the year en route to a 74-61 victory at Vanguard University, Saturday evening. Azusa Pacific has now won a season-high 6 straight and 9 of its past 10, a stretch that includes victories over GSAC front-runners Concordia University, California Baptist University and now Vanguard.
Sophomore guard Mike Danielian led the Cougar way at both ends of the court, tallying a game-high 21 points on the strength of a season-high 5 three-pointers, and along with junior swingman Kimarley Williams, he spearheaded a Cougar defense that put the clamps on one of the best 3-point shooting teams in the conference.
“Coming into the game, I wasn’t necessarily thinking of scoring,” said Danielian, who enjoyed his fourth game of the season with at least 4 3-pointers made (all Cougar victories), “but rather I was concentrating on not giving up so much on defense and limiting the '3' for them.”
However, Danielian found his touch from the get-go and scored 16 first-half points, knocking down a quartet of treys in the process. His second bomb of the game capped a 12-2 Cougar run that put Azusa Pacific up 19-9 midway through the first half. Five minutes later he followed with another 3-pointer to keep the Cougar lead in double-digits at 31-21, and Azusa Pacific maintained its 10-point advantage at the break, holding a 38-28 cushion at halftime.
“I made my first couple (of 3-pointers) and it got me going,” said Danielian. “Coach started calling plays for me, and the guys were looking for me. I felt like I couldn’t miss.”
Vanguard could get no closer than 5 points in the second half because Danielian delivered the dagger at the critical moment, burying another shot from the arc to push the Cougar advantage to 54-46 with just under 11 minutes to play. From that point forward, Azusa Pacific executed its defensive game plan to near perfection.
The Lion trio of Dennis Heenan, Greg Gusiff and Brian Roberts came into the game averaging nearly 6 treys a contest while shooting 46-percent from the arc, but the Cougars put a stranglehold on the trio, limiting them to just a pair of 3-pointers in 8 attempts. Heenen, who was shadowed all night by Danielian, finished with 10 points, but he was 3-for-12 from the floor.
“We were determined to defend the 3-point line,” said Azusa Pacific head coach Justin Leslie. “If Vanguard gets up on you, you can’t get out of that hole. They defend too well and execute too well. So we had to do it from the start of the game, and we did. But the gamble in defending the 3 is that there is no help defense, and we were going to let their point guards make plays, and they did. Fortunately for us, Mike made plays that kept us going, and the way we defend, we’re pretty hard to beat too when we’re up by 10.”
Vanguard point guards Greg Scott and his back-up Andrew Ellis combined for nearly half of the Lions 61 points, tallying 13 and 17 points, respectively, oftentimes driving the gut for lay-ups. In fact, Scott did just that to pull the Lions to within 5 at 57-52 with 7 minutes left in the game.
However, the Cougar frontline, which was the focus of the Vanguard defense most of the night, scored on 3 straight possessions, beginning with a David Burgess short jumper, followed by a Davon Roberts drive to the bucket, and capped by a Chidi Ajufo lay-up that put the Cougars back up by at 11 and out of reach at 63-52 with 4 minutes to play.
Roberts, who came in averaging 20 points and 7 rebounds over the previous 9 contests, tallied 12 points tonight to go along with a game-high 9 rebounds. Burgess finished with 11 points and 9 rebounds as well.
Williams had 9 points, and Matt Oliver added 9 as well to go along with 6 rebounds.
“This is probably our biggest win of the season just because of the circumstances,” said Danielian
With the victory the Cougars leapfrog Vanguard in the GSAC standings and move into a tie for second-place with California Baptist, both a game behind Concordia. Azusa Pacific is now 19-8 on the season, 12-5 in the GSAC. With the victory over Vanguard, the Cougars successfully complete a week in which they avenge last month’s losses to Fresno Pacific University and Vanguard, a pair of setbacks that sent Azusa Pacific reeling to a 3-4 conference mark.
“I said that this would be a defining week for us,” said Leslie, “and what we’ve done speaks to what we can be. However, we’re still on the road next week at a place that’s not very comfortable. We haven’t won at The Master’s the past 2 years, and they’ve beaten Concordia and Point Loma at home this season.”
Azusa Pacific visits The Master’s College, Tuesday (Feb. 26) in Santa Clarita for a 7:30 p.m. game.