SANTA CLARITA, Calif. – It may have been a chilly effort from the floor but Azusa Pacific is still the hottest team in the Golden State Athletic Conference.
The NAIA’s No. 22-ranked Azusa Pacific overcame a poor first-half of shooting and produced timely baskets in the second-half to come up with a hard-fought 72-64 GSAC victory at The Master’s College Tuesday evening.
With the victory, Azusa Pacific has now won a GSAC best 7 straight conference games and 10 of its past 11 to remain tied for second-place in the conference with California Baptist University, and game behind leader Concordia University.
The Master’s Bross Gym has been a house of horrors for the best of the GSAC all year long. Concordia, California Baptist and Point Loma Nazarene University all fell hard to the Mustangs in Santa Clarita at some point this season. However, the Cougars withstood every Mustang run tonight, never trailing in the second half, and in the end delivering head coach Justin Leslie a perfectly wrapped present on his 30th birthday.
“Wow, this is team is exceeding everyone’s expectations, even ours as a coaching staff from as recent as a month ago,” said Leslie. “This is a very difficult place to play and its nice to get out of here knowing that we’re still playing for a conference title and get another chance to improve our national standing. For me, that’s a real gift because not too many other teams felt good leaving here.”
Both teams put together an ugly exhibition of football – err basketball – in the first half, throwing everything off the rim and seemingly nothing through it. They combined to make just 9 of the game’s first 38 (.237) shots, and with 5 minutes left in the first half, Azusa Pacific was up just 14-13 following a Roberts’ dunk, about the only shot neither team could miss through the first 20 minutes of play.
“It wasn’t pretty X’s and O’s,” said Leslie. “We had to get physical and use our size to get going. We were just too flat offensively at the start the game.”
Sophomore guard Mike Danielian, known more for his offense than any defensive effort, nonetheless enjoyed the defensive game of his life, locking down the Mustang’s top scorer, Ryan Zamroz, from the opening tip. Zamros’ slow start allowed the Cougars to muscle its way out to a 27-22 halftime lead.
“Mike stayed with Zamroz all 35 minutes he was on the floor tonight,” said Leslie. “He was always there with a hand in his face, right close to him. It was the best defensive effort of his career.”
And the numbers back up Leslie’s assessment. Zamroz went 3-for-14 from the floor and finished with 10 points, just over half his season average.
Following Roberts’ dunk, the Cougars never trailed again. However, behind Josh Herman’s game-high 20 points, including 14 in the second half, The Master’s counter-punched every Azusa Pacific offensive push, never going away and always remaining in striking distance. In fact, on 4 different occasions the Mustangs rallied to within a point, yet each time Azusa Pacific kept them at bay, first using a Burgess put-back and then a Roberts’ lay-up to keep the lead at 3 points midway through the second half.
Heroes came off the bench in the form of David Stafford who buried a 3-pointer to give the Cougars a 4-point lead at 47-43 with 10 minutes left in the game, and then Matt Oliver whose drive to the basket offset another Herman trey and ignited a mini 10-4 Cougar run that put Azusa Pacific up 57-50 with 5 minutes left in the game.
“Stafford’s 3 was huge,” said Leslie, “and Matt made plays at both ends of the court tonight.”
The Master’s never got any closer than 6 points the rest of the way
“We were dead in the water offensively, and Chidi came through for us,” said Leslie “We had 4 great performances off the bench tonight to make this a good team win.”
With the victory, Azusa Pacific improves to 20-8 and posts its 16th straight 20-win campaign. The Cougars are 13-5 in the GSAC, and will host Cal Baptist Friday evening in the Felix Event Center to snap the tie for second place. Tip-off is 7:30 p.m.