AZUSA, Calif. – The NAIA’s No. 11-ranked Azusa Pacific used an all-out blitz from the opening tip-off to assume a commanding 15-point lead 4 minutes into play and then cruised to a 100-67 victory over the University of Saint Francis (Ill.) in the opening round of the Cougar Classic.
Junior guard Mike Danielian led the early onslaught by scoring the Cougars’ first 12-points in less than 2 minutes of pay, burying 4 consecutive shots from the 3-point arc. And though Danielian would score only 2 more points the rest of the night, those coming on a pair of second-half free throws, the damage he single-handedly inflicted in less than 120 seconds was enough to give Azusa Pacific a comforting victory following a gut-wrenching loss to Rocky Mountain College on a desperation 56-foot shot 10 days ago.
“Those threes are the easy shots for Mike that we want him taking,” said Cougar coach Justin Leslie. “The guys have to have the confidence that comes from practice that when they get those looks they can knock them down, and Mike has been working hard on that the past 2 weeks. He needed a start like that, and I was glad for him.”
Junior forward Dominique Johnson led Azusa Pacific the rest of the way with a team-high 23 points on 9-for-14 shooting. He tallied 13 points in the second half to help Azusa Pacific pull away for its first 100-point effort over an NAIA opponent since February of 2007 when it tagged 101 on GSAC rival San Diego Christian College. Johnson appears to have found a zone with his new team, scoring 48 points in the past 2 games on 19-of-30 shooting from the floor
Azusa Pacific led 48-38 at the half after USF used a 17-6 run to close the frame and reduce a 21-point deficit to a manageable ten. Senior forward Sam Robinson scored 10 of his 22 first-half points during the run. Robinson finished with a game-high 31 on 12-for-16 shooting. However, the rest of the Fighting Saints offered little, if any, support.
Azusa Pacific’s pressure defense wreaked havoc on USF, forcing 24 turnovers which the Cougars turned into 37 points. Sophomore point guard Mike Caffese led a relentless attack on USF, finishing with 5 steals to go along with 8 assists against just 1 turnover.
“Caffese was energy that got us going,” said Leslie. “He makes hustle plays. He did a nice job in the first half of making those plays, and then in the second half, when we had the lead, he calmed it down and made the easy plays, making sure that we executed the offense.”
Azusa Pacific opened the second half with a 15-3 run, never allowing Saint Francis to get any closer than 19 points over the final 14 minutes of the game. Led by freshman Marshall Johnson’s 15 points, the Cougar bench out-scored USF’s reserves 43-25.
“We gave up some lay-ups because of our pressure defense but I think we got more out of it at the other end,” said Leslie. “Playing a full-court pressure defense utilizes our natural athletic talents, but by the same token it uses our depth. If we’re going to play 3-on-3, a lot of teams can beat us, but if it’s 10-on-10, 12-on-12, I like our chances. Playing that kind of defense is just another way of taking advantage of our depth.
With the victory Azusa Pacific moves to 7-4 on the season while Saint Francis falls to 7-8.
The Cougar Classic continues Tuesday (Dec. 30) with 2 more men’s games. Hope International University hosts Saint Francis at 6 p.m., followed by Azusa Pacific’s game with the University of Montana-Western at 8 p.m. Admission to both games is free.