All-Pac-10 center Taj Gibson epitomized the Trojans’ dominance in the paint with a 19-point, 14-rebound double-double, and highly-touted freshman DeMar DeRozan did not disappoint in his collegiate debut, registering a game-high 21 points to go along with 7 rebounds and 2 steals.
“They’re big, they’re athletic, and we were exposed in the first half in the fact that we didn’t rebound every well,” said Cougar coach Justin Leslie. “They got a lot of easy baskets off second-chance points and in transition. That settled the game early. We got ourselves into a 16-, 20-point hole that we never got out of.”
Junior guard Dominique Johnson paced the NAIA’s No. 17-ranked Azusa Pacific with 20 points on the strength of 4 buckets from the newly extended 3-point line, including back-to-back bombs to open the game and keep the Cougars even with USC at 6-6.
However USC, which is ranked No. 18 in the Associated Press preseason poll, scored 8 straight with DeRozan leading the way with a dunk and fast break lay-up. The Trojans then used a 12-2 run midway through the first half to move out to a 31-15 lead following a DeRozan lay-up. After a pair of Gibson free throws, USC owned its biggest lead of the first half at 47-25 with 3 minutes to go before the Cougars closed with 8-2 run to go into the break down 16 at 49-33.
Azusa Pacific got no closer than to within 14 points in the second half at 51-37 following a Johnson lay-up. That’s when USC returned to its bread-and-butter, continually moving the ball into the paint. Kasey Cunningham came off the bench to bury all 6 of his shots and finish with 14 points. Keith Wilkinson added 10 points and 6 rebounds for the men of Troy, who out-scored Azusa Pacific, 44-12, in the paint.
“We cut to 14 in the second half and then had a couple of lapses,” said Johnson, “and those free throws hurt us. We kept on playing though and never quit. This team will never quit.”
Azusa Pacific was whistled for 25 fouls which resulted in USC shooting 34 free throws, more than twice as many as the Cougars.
The Cougars had early trouble getting the ball into the hands of 6-foot-10 All-GSAC center David Burgess and thus tried to live at the 3-point arc where they took 20 of their first 31 shots.
In the second half, Azusa Pacific got into offensive rhythm and Burgess responded with 6 points to go along with his team-high 10 rebounds. Mike Danielian and Brayden Bell each finished with 9 points.
“We did a better job as the game progressed so it was a great opportunity to test our mettle against a very good team,” added Leslie. “We had a lot of our weaknesses exposed tonight, but these are things we can learn from and continue to improve as a group.”
Azusa Pacific committed just 12 turnovers against a quick USC defense but shot at a paltry .319 (22-for-69) clip from the floor.
"We won't play anyone like this in our league or nationally," added Johnson, "so we should be much better because of this when we go to Salt Lake City."
The 2008-09 season starts for keeps this weekend when Azusa Pacific travels to Salt Lake City, Utah, to compete in the Westminster Tournament. The Cougars face Montana-Western Friday (Nov. 7) at 5:30 p.m. (MST) and then meets No. 13-ranked Westminster College Saturday (Nov. 8) at 7:30 p.m. (MST).