SALT LAKE CITY, Utah -- Back in November of 2000, Azusa Pacific was stunned with a 75-67 season-opening loss to little-known Dillard University. After the game then-Cougar center, senior Justin Leslie, apologized to head coach Bill Odell for his team’s performance and promised it wouldn’t happen again. Most thought Leslie was referring to another bad performance that season – and certainly there weren’t any as the Cougars went 35-2 the rest of the way – but perhaps Leslie meant the Cougars would never lose another season-opener. Because they haven’t.
Junior guard Dominique Johnson scored a game-high 18 points and All-GSAC center David Burgess added 15 point to go along with 7 rebounds to lead the NAIA’s No. 17-ranked Azusa Pacific to a 77-69 season-opening victory over University of Montana-Western on the campus of Westminster College in Salt Lake City, Friday evening.
“We looked good for about 35 minutes,” said Leslie, now in his second season as Azusa Pacific’s head coach. “Dominique made big plays, and Dave was unstoppable when he was in the game. And defensively we did a great job until we got into foul trouble.”
The game was not as close as the score might indicate as Azusa Pacific rolled out to a 17-point halftime lead at 40-23 and dominated throughout the night, building its advantage to as much as 24 at 56-32 following a Johnson jumper with 12 minutes left in the game. However, 5 of the Cougars’ whopping 20 turnovers were committed in the final 4 minutes of play and 4 missed free throws in that same span allowed the Bulldogs to pull to within 6 with 64 seconds remaining.
“I’m disappointed that we lost our composure over the officiating,” said Leslie. “We knew we’d be against it with the officiating. We’ve been to Salt Lake before. So we talked about beforehand, and I thought we were ready for it, but we whined and that only hurt our cause.”
Three different Cougars fouled out and 2 others collected 4 personals. Burgess picked up his fifth with 7 minutes to play with the Cougars still up by 15, and the game drastically changed with a 21-8 Bulldog run with Burgess out of the way.
Junior guard Zane Meehl, who came off the bench to chip in 14 points, converted 4 free throws in the final 48 seconds to keep UMW at bay and preserve the win.
Burgess dominated play in the first half, grabbing all 7 of his rebounds and tallying all but 2 of his points in the opening frame of play. His lay-up with 7 minutes left in the first half capped a 14-2 Cougar run that put Azusa Pacific in control at 33-16.
Azusa Pacific has now won 8 straight season-openers and moves to 1-0, while Montana-Western falls to 1-2. The Cougars continue their Utah swing with a meeting with No. 13-ranked Westminster College Saturday (Nov. 8) at 7:30 p.m. (MST). Westminster is 4-0 after posting a 93-61 victory over San Diego Christian College tonight.