AZUSA, Calif. -- You may have heard this one before. Azusa Pacific builds a double-digit second-half lead, only to watch it quickly disappear when its opponent gets hot from behind the 3-point arc. Then comes a handful of missed free throws in the final minute, any of which could have helped put the game out of reach.
Thursday night, the NAIA’s No. 12-ranked Cougars briefly relived Monday’s nightmare loss to Biola but recovered in time to hold off Fresno Pacific for a 72-65 win in the first round of the GSAC Postseason Tournament Thursday night.
“This was the second straight game where we just had a loss of poise in the end,” said GSAC Coach of the Year Justin Leslie. “Fresno Pacific started trapping and started doing what teams do in March. This is the conference tournament – you lose, you go home. They were playing for their life, and they played really hard. They started making shots, and we responded with some poor decisions.”
Junior center David Burgess canned a pair of free throws with 6:45 left to give Azusa Pacific a 17-point lead, its largest of the game, at 60-43. Adrian Hurtado made 4 straight free throws, Jordan Farley hit back-to-back jumpers and Todd Brown’s 3-pointer with 4 minutes left in regulation pulled the Sunbirds to within 7 at 61-54.
Senior forward Davon Roberts offered a brief respite from the Sunbirds’ run, putting back his own miss in the lane, but Andrew David drilled another trey at the other end to cap the 14-3 run that pulled Fresno Pacific within 63-57 with 2:30 to play. Sophomore guard Mike Danielian answered a minute later with a leaning floater from just inside the free throw line, but an Adrian Sanchez trey with 37 seconds left kept the Sunbirds within 6 points at 68-62.
With Fresno Pacific forced to foul, freshman guard Mike Caffese drew iron on both of his free throws, and after a Sanchez miss from long range, Roberts missed the first of 2 at the line before coaxing in the second to push the lead to 69-62 with 23 seconds left. Andrew David drained his third trey of the game to cut the lead to 69-65, and Danielian missed the front end of a pair of foul shots with 16 seconds to play. He swished the second, and senior guard Matt Oliver knocked down both of his chances at the line in the closing seconds to seal the win.
“We were lucky we were at home, and we were lucky to hit some free throws (in the end),” said Oliver. “One of the hardest things to do is send a team home for good, because they’re fighting for their lives. Every (close) game prepares you for the next one, and it helps you build confidence in those close games because it lets you know what you’re made of.”
Roberts and Burgess, Azusa Pacific’s All-GSAC selections, were held scoreless through the first 13 minutes of the game, but Burgess’ jump hook with the shot clock running out sparked an 8-point run during which the Cougars took their first lead of the game. Freshman guard David Stafford’s short layup from the left side off an inbounds pass from Caffesse followed Burgess’ jump hook and gave Azusa Pacific a 22-21 lead with 5:17 left in the first half.
“Even though Fresno was making shots, they still were not able to score a lot of points,” said Leslie. “I feel very confident in this team’s ability to defend. With that being said, I was surprised in the first half how we countered back. We scored in some places we normally don’t. Our leading scorers did not contribute in the first half, and it was guys stepping up off the bench in the first half. That says something about the depth we have, some guys off the bench who could step up and help us in those times when we’re a little flat.”
Oliver hit 3 times from 3-point range in the first 13 minutes to help loosen a Fresno Pacific defense that collapsed heavily on the Cougars’ formidable frontcourt, scoring 10 of his game-high 17 points in the first half.
“I noticed they were doubling off the point like crazy on our posts, so I knew I was going to be wide open,” said Oliver. “I knew I’d have to make those shots in order for them to respect us so we could go back inside. I went out expecting to be open, and when you know you’re going to be able to shoot, it makes it a lot easier.”
Jordan Farley hit 2 of 3 Sunbirds 3-pointers in a 9-0 run that pushed Fresno Pacific back in front, 30-26, but the Cougars finished the half with a 5-0 run that included Roberts’ first score of the game to take a 31-30 lead at halftime.
Fresno Pacific, which was 6-of-10 from 3-point range in the opening half, missed 4 straight 3-point attempts over a 4-minute stretch early in the second half after Sanchez knocked down a triple that cut Azusa Pacific’s lead to 36-33 with 18:03 to play. During that time, Burgess grabbed a pair of offensive rebounds that set up 2 Cougar baskets during a 9-2 run that gave Azusa Pacific its first double-digit lead of the game at 45-35 with 14:11 to play.
“We were very stagnant in the first half,” said Leslie. “We didn’t screen well enough, and we didn’t move without the ball. In the second half, we were very deliberate in creating movement on the offensive end, and that really got us some quality looks. It was a little disheartening that we went away from that in the end – the play calling didn’t change, and the personnel didn’t change, it was just that guys forgot what got us to that point of success.”
“We had a 17-point lead, and we got it because we were playing hard, we were playing together on the offensive end, getting lots of movement and we were getting lots of rebounds. They got some second-chance looks, we stopped moving and forced some shots and they started hitting some shots that changed the tempo of the game. We had to grind it out at the end at the foul line, and at the end we didn’t shoot the ball well from there.”
The Cougars dominated the boards in the second half, out-rebounding the Sunbirds 25-14 after halftime, including 12 offensive rebounds. Roberts finished with a game-high 11 rebounds to go with 11 points for the double-double, while Burgess added 11 points and 7 rebounds. Danielian finished with 14 points.
Farley tallied 16 points to pace Fresno Pacific, while Brown added 14 points and a team-high 6 rebounds for the Sunbirds.
With the win, Azusa Pacific improves to 22-9 overall, while Fresno Pacific’s season comes to an end with a 19-12 final mark.
The Cougars’ reward is a semifinal matchup with a revenge-minded California Baptist squad that seemingly had a win wrapped up over the Cougars last Friday, Feb. 29. GSAC Player of the Year Mark Roussin missed a pair of free throws with 13.3 seconds left and a 2-point Lancers lead, allowing Azusa Pacific the opportunity to tie the game on a David Burgess tip-in that forced overtime in the Cougars’ 85-81 win. With that victory, Azusa Pacific became the only team to sweep the NAIA’s No. 13-ranked California Baptist this season.
“We need some guys to step up in the areas of effort and start leading again,” said Leslie. “We got a little complacent this week, and California Baptist is going to be hungry to beat us. It’s going to be very intense, and if we don’t come to play, they will beat us. It’s going to take a team (to win the GSAC Tournament) that is playing really well together, and right now, that’s not us. I think it’s going to be the team that wants it the most. There weren’t any blowouts tonight, and I don’t think there are going to be any in the semifinals. If we come out with the kind of effort we did tonight, we won’t win on Saturday.”
The teams will square off in the first semifinal contest held at GSAC regular-season champion Concordia University on Saturday, March 8, with No. 6-ranked Concordia and No. 25-ranked Point Loma Nazarene to follow in the other semifinal contest. The doubleheader tips off at 5:30 p.m.