Azusa Pacific upset the top-ranked Lancers, 77-70, Saturday night at the Felix Event Center in the Cougars’ Golden State Athletic Conference opener. The Cougars used a 21-9 run to close out the game and all 21 points came from within the paint or at the free throw line.
Cougar guards Mike Caffese, Zane Meehl and Kimarley Williams found success with dribble penetration against the Lancer defense over the final 9 minutes of play to turn a 61-56 deficit into the Cougars’ fifth straight victory over a No. 1-ranked team.
“We played about 15 minutes of good basketball tonight, fortunately it was when it counted,” said Azusa Pacific head coach Justin Leslie. “We played about 5 good minutes in the first half and 10 good minutes in the second half. We played hard when it counted, and we had some guys step it up emotionally, and that’s what we needed more than anything.”
Following a Meehl 3-pointer with 12 minutes left in the game that pulled the Cougars to within 3 at 57-54, Azusa Pacific began to push the ball inside, led by the sophomore point guard Caffese, who dished the ball to David Burgess for a dunk and twice to Williams for back-to-back lay-ups, the second one putting Azusa Pacific back in the lead for good at 62-61 with 7:30 remaining.
Brayden Bell converted 3 free throws and a lay-up, off another Caffese assist, to give Azusa Pacific what was then its largest lead of the night at 69-63. Bell, who discovered only minutes before tip-off that he had been removed from the starting line-up, nonetheless tallied a double-double in his first Golden State Athletic Conference game, registering 13 points to go along with game highs of 10 rebounds and 3 blocked shots.
“I was proud of Brayden’s effort,” said Leslie. “It would have been real easy at that point to check out or to be discouraged, but he bought in and played well. I was impressed.”
“Coach makes decisions on what he thinks is best for us and our match-ups,” said Bell. “It’s his decision and I just wanted to play as hard as I could for the time I got to be out there. It really wasn’t that big of a deal for me to come off the bench.”
Behind the play of reigning GSAC Player of the Year Mark Roussin and his game-high 22 points, Cal Baptist rolled out to a 28-16 lead midway through the first half. Roussin’s lay-up capped a 24-7 run in which the Lancers drained a trio of treys and got easy transition baskets off steals.
Azusa Pacific answered with its own run, led by Dominique Johnson, who scored 7 of his team-high 16 points during a 20-6 Cougar outburst. His second of 2 breakaway dunks gave Azusa Pacific a 36-34 lead, an advantage the Cougars continued to hold at halftime at 42-40.
“Dominique scored 16 points and I didn’t run a single play for him the entire night,” Leslie added. “That is part of our strength. We had so many guys unselfishly make an extra pass to someone else tonight. Our assist to turnover ratio really pleases me, especially against the No. 1-ranked in the nation.”
Caffese collected a game-high 7 assists, including 6 in the second half. He finished with 8 points, knocking down 2 key treys when the Cougars were struggling to get their offense going in the early moments of the game.
After Azusa Pacific caught Cal Baptist late in the first half, neither team enjoyed more than a 6-point lead the rest of the game until the Cougars made to late free throws for the 7-point victory, their largest margin of the night.
“We started playing good ball in the middle of the second half but we couldn’t get closer,” said Leslie. “I was afraid that we were going to get frustrated and lose hope when everything was working for us on offense but we couldn’t get a stop. But that’s the beauty of Cal Baptist. They are crafty and smart. You can’t really rattle them out of their game.”
Though Cal Baptist had an edge in rebounding for the game, Azusa Pacific out-rebounded the Lancers 21-15 in the second half which translated into a bonus 11 second-chance points.
“This is such a big win,” added Leslie. “Cal Baptist is good. They are more athletic than they have been in the past. Defensively, they defended and pressured like never before. I told our players before the game that this game in the first week in December could have implications in March for a conference championship and an opportunity to get to the national tournament.”
For the sixth straight game in the Azusa Pacific-Cal Baptist series over the past 3 seasons, the lower ranked team has won. With the victory, the Cougars improve to 5-2 overall, 1-0 in the GSAC. Cal Baptist, which also got 12 points and 7 assists from Omar Krayem, falls to 8-1 overall, 1-1 in the GSAC.
The 2 teams will meet again Feb. 7 in Riverside in what is sure to be a titanic rematch.