AZUSA, Calif. – Azusa Pacific let a 23-point second-half lead shrink to near nothing but was saved by the final horn to hold off a fast-charging University of Montana-Western for an 89-85 victory to close out the Cougar Classic Tuesday evening at the Felix Event Center.
Junior forward Dominque Johnson scored a career-high 26 points, including 16 in the second half, and All-GSAC center David Burgess posted his fourth double-double of the season with 16 points and a career-high 19 rebounds to lead Azusa Pacific which survived a near fatal collapse of play.
The Cougars led wire-to-wire, moving out to a 14-4 lead to start the game and pushing the advantage to 20 or more points on several occasions. In fact, Azusa Pacific led 59-36 with 14 minutes left in the game and appeared to be headed toward its second straight easy win. However, Montana-Western, which entered the game 15th in the nation in 3-point field goals made, canned 5 of their dozen treys in the final 6 minutes, scoring 27 points in a frantic barrage that pulled the Bulldogs to within 3 at 86-83 following a Cody Thueringer lay-up with 19 seconds on the clock. The Cougars, though, made 3-of-4 free throws to keep UMW at bay and post their fifth straight win over the Bulldogs.
“We actually played pretty well and we did enough right things in the first 35 minutes to overcome all the wrong things we did the final 5 minutes,” said second-year Cougar coach Justin Leslie. “We have to close out games better. We’re young and inexperienced and it showed.”
Though Montana-Western began chipping away at its large deficit, Azusa Pacific still appeared to have the game in hand when Mike Meza converted a reverse lay-up to put the Cougars up 79-64 with 4 minutes left. The Bulldogs relentless full-court press began to pay dividends, rattling Azusa Pacific into 7 of its 13 turnovers. Bulldog guards Eric Lipkin and Chad Myers took advantage, combining for 13 points to pull Montana-Western back to within single-digits for the first time since midway through the first half.
The Cougars then missed 2-of-3 free throws and Lipkin followed with his fifth triple of the game to suddenly give Montana-Western some glimmer of hope at 86-81 with 27 seconds left. A Burgess turnover turned into Thueringer’s lay-up, but that was as close as UMW could get.
The Cougars relied on Burgess’ burliness and Johnson’s quickness to befuddle Montana-Western’s defense and roll out to a 45-30 lead at halftime. The 6-foot-10 Burgess used a 4-inch advantage over Western’s post JaRon Brown, to register 12 points and 9 rebounds by the break.
“No question we were going to Dave tonight,” said Leslie. “He did a good job. He was more focused to play hard, and he was tougher than he has been.”
The Cougars struggled from the 3-point arc, missing 21-of-28 shots
“They sat in zone and put 3 guys around Dave,” added Leslie. “We went to him as much as we could, but those 3s were the shots they gave us, and we have to step up and hit them if we’re going to be successful from here on out.”
Johnson has found a groove and is averaging 25 points over the past 3 games. His last basket of the night gave Azusa Pacific an 83-71 lead with 2 minutes to play.
Azusa Pacific returns to Golden State Athletic Conference for the rest of the season, beginning with a visit to 2-time defending conference champ Concordia University Saturday (Jan. 3) for a 7:30 p.m. game.
“It is not going to get any easier from here on out,” said Leslie. “In fact, this game was easy compared to what we’re going to see the rest of the season.
“We have so much to learn, but these are really good kids and they want to learn. We just have to put it together for a consistent effort all the way through to finish games out.”
Montana-Western, which was paced by Myers’ 21 points, falls to 8-6 on the season while Azusa Pacific improves to 8-4.