AZUSA, Calif. -- Dominique Johnson scored a game-high 23 points, including 11 in the final 6 minutes of the first half when Azusa Pacific began to run away, but he’ll be the first to admit that he was far from the star of the game in Azusa Pacific’s 84-71 NAIA intersectional victory over Trevecca Nazarene University Thursday evening.
Indeed, the night belonged to sophomore David Stafford who came off the bench to pour in a season-high 14 points in just 12 minutes of action, leading a rather lethargic set of Cougars to what could prove later in the season to be a significant double-digit victory.
“We were impatient and, we took a lot of wrong shot selections tonight,” said Johnson. “The person that saved us was Stafford. He didn’t force anything.”
Stafford entered the evening with just 9 points in 4 previous games, and had made only 2-of-9 shots. He didn’t step on the court tonight until 5 minutes left in the first half and with the Cougars in the midst of a 15-2 run. He immediately knocked down a trey from the wing, and then after the Trojans pulled back to within 4, Stafford buried another 3-ball with 33 second remaining. When Johnson closed the half with his fourth trey, the Cougars found themselves up at the break with a quick 10-point advantage at 42-32.
“I knew I could trust that David knew his spots and knew where to be versus that defense,” said Azusa Pacific head coach Justin Leslie. “He’s a smart kid. He has the courage to take those shots when they are there.”
Playing its first game of a 3-game, 3-day swing through Southern California, Trevecca Nazarene, out of Nashville, Tenn., refused to go away under Azusa Pacific’s constant pressure defense. In fact, the game was tied 5 times in the first 12 minutes of play, and when Tyler Watkins canned 1 of the Trojans’ 9 three-pointers, TNU moved out to a 22-19 lead. However, Johnson scored the Cougars’ next 8 points, and Azusa Pacific never trailed again.
“Trevecca is a really good team,” added Leslie. “They had a smart game plan. They were able to put us in situations where we made mistakes at both ends of the floor, and those mistakes led to opportunities for them and they sure capitalized on them.”
Despite its own shooting woes, Azusa Pacific managed a 17-5 run that stretched across both halves, resulting in a 16-point lead at 53-37 following a Brayden Bell lay-up less then 3 minutes into the second half. Azusa Pacific kept the cushy lead the rest of the way despite TNU shooting at a .596 clip from the floor.”
“To win by double-figures when a team shoots 60-percent from the floor, I’m amazed,” said Leslie. “Every year Trevecca shoots such a high percentage from the floor because they can all pass the ball, they can all shoot the ball, and they are fundamentally sound.”
No Trojan represents Leslie’s assessment better than senior center Brian Oduor, who last year led the NAIA in field goal percentage and came into the Felix Event Center shooting 68-percent (17-for-25) through this year’s first 3 games. And though he finished with a team-high 19 points and 3 assists, Cougar center David Burgess frustrated Oduor at every turn, forcing the Kenyan to shoot just 8-for-18 from the floor while committing a team-high 5 turnovers in 38 minutes of play.
Burgess answered with 14 points and a game-high 7 rebounds, leading a Cougar contingent that out-rebounded Trevecca Nazarene, 36-26, and held the Trojans to just 1 offensive rebound. As a result, the Cougars out-scored Trevecca, 18-2, on second-chance points.
“Obviously there is a size advantage with our team,” said Leslie. “However, I don’t think it was us doing a great job of blocking out, it was more of just the way they play. They are calculating for good shots. Also, it doesn’t matter if you don’t get second shots when you shoot 60-percent. Still, our defense and rebounding really gave us that margin for error tonight.”
The Cougars forced 21 Trojan turnovers, and after collecting 13 steals in Tuesday’s win over Grand Canyon University, the Cougars came back with 14 more thefts against TNU, led by Mike Caffese’s career-high 6 picks. Caffese also had a team-high 5 assists.
“This is the type of game we needed,” concluded Leslie. “It’s a game that will benefit us in the long run. We’ve seen so many different looks so far this year. I don’t know what’s going to be next. Teams have really mixed it up on us defensively, from mans, to press, to zone, to half-court and three-quarter traps, more than I can remember seeing just 5 games into the season. We’ve seen things that normally we don’t see until we get through league. I was very pleased that we were able to see minutes tonight against the match-up zone, because we now have several teams in our league doing that. This is definitely preparing us for league.”
And in the end, this may prove to be an impressive win against a Trevecca team that has advanced to the “Sweet 16” of the NAIA Tournament twice in the past 3 years and is expected to be much stronger when it opens play in one of the NAIA’s better leagues, the TranSouth Athletic Conference, later this season.
With the victory Azusa Pacific improves 3-2 on the season while Trevecca Nazarene falls to 2-2.