LA MIRADA, Calif. – Justin Leslie called it the “elephant in the room.” Everyone knew it was there, but no one was willing talking about it.
Azusa Pacific hadn’t won a game on the road this season, a fact that was hard to fathom considering that the Cougars had built their 16-year Golden State Athletic Conference dynasty on the ability to win on the GSAC road. And it was a truth made all the more difficult to ignore considering that both of the Cougars’ conference losses this year came on the road and involved last-minute collapses that stole defeat from the hands of victory.
A 25-4 run that stretched across both halves, however, laid waste to the elephant, and so too did Mike Caffese’s near perfect night as Azusa Pacific posted its first road win of the season, downing Biola University, 73-61, before a crowd of 1,728 in Chase Gym Tuesday evening.
The 5-foot-10 Caffese registered career-highs of 19 points and 7 rebounds to go along with a game-high 6 assists against no turnovers in 33 minutes of high-intensity play at both ends of the court. He engineered a Cougar attack that continually put the game at an uncomfortable speed for the methodical Biola scheme and then frustrated his counterpart, Biola point Marlon King, into 7-for-16 shooting and 4 turnovers.
“This is probably my best performance in my Azusa Pacific career,” said Caffese. “To be the point guard and not have any turnovers is a hard thing to do. I’ve really been working on being poised, under control and making smart decisions to put ourselves in a better position to win.”
Caffese scored 17 of his 19 points in his final 20 minutes of play, and ironically, the sophomore from Lodi, Calif., who came into the game shooting an abysmal 43-percent from the line, registered 11 of his points at the charity stripe, missing just 1 free throw all night.
“My free throws have been a little shaky lately,” to put it mildly said Caffese, whose 3 missed free throws late in the game figured prominantly in a defeat at No. 4-ranked Concordia University last Saturday. “My confidence hasn’t been all there with my free throws.”
Yet it was Caffese’s 2 free throws that started the Cougars’ fateful run in which a 26-17 Biola lead with 5 minutes left in the first half turned around into an Azusa Pacific 42-30 advantage with 14 minutes remaining in the game.
“We upped the defensive pressure at that point,” said Leslie as he reflected on Azusa Pacific’s turnaround. “We got into them that last 6 minutes of the first half and never lapsed the rest of the way. Biola never got comfortable after that. They took a lot of hurried shots that were uncharacteristic of them, and they were tired. We wore them down.”
The game certainly had a Biola-tempo to it on its way to a 26-all tie at halftime. The Cougars went over 7 minutes without a field goal but sandwiched between a Dominique Johnson jumper and his trey that tied the game at half were 6 made free throws by the second-worst free show shooting team in the conference.
Once even with the Biola, Azusa Pacific put the game into a second-half overdrive of 3-point bombs and pick-pocketing Eagle guards which resulted in a flurry of fast-break points, highlighted by a thunderous ally-oop Johnson dunk off a 25-foot pass from Caffese that put the Cougars up 53-41 with 8 minutes to play.
“We were very successful at playing the game at our pace in the second half,” said Leslie. “They took way more perimeter shots than they would have liked, and they had 13 turnovers, which is like 20 for any other team because Biola is so good at ball control.”
Johnson, who carried Azusa Pacific through a stagnant stretch with 12 first-half points, finished with a game-high 22, his sixth 20-point outing of the season and his fourth in the past 5 games (he’s averaging 23 points in 29 minutes of play over the past 5 games).
For the fifth time this season freshman Marshall Johnson, no relation to Dominique, recorded a double-digit scoring effort, tallying 10 points, including 8 in the second half. His triple from the top of the key gave Azusa Pacific a somewhat comfortable 48-35 advantage. Biola got no closer than within 7 on a couple of occasions, the last coming at 53-46 following a Rocky Hampton jumper in the paint with 7 minutes left in the game.
Dominique Johnson followed with an awkward put-back in the middle of the key, and Marshall Johnson connected on another 3-pointer, the Cougars’ last field goal of the game, to push the lead back to 12 at 58-46 with 5:28 left. From there, Azusa Pacific, which earlier this season went 25-for-53 (.472) at the line in back-to-back games, found an unusual fluid stroke at the line and buried 15-of-16 free throws to keep Biola at bay.
The Cougars controlled the flow of the game as well as they controlled the ball, committing a season-low 8 turnovers, and 2 of those came in the final 59 seconds when Azusa Pacific owned a double-digit lead.
“We competed,” said Leslie. “Defense is where this team is going to have to hang its hat for the rest of the season. In the GSAC if you don’t win some games on the road, you don’t stand a chance. We really needed this win. 1-3 wasn’t an option.”
Nate Rakestraw, a sophomore transfer from the University of Arkansas, led a trio of Biola starters in double-digits with 19 points. He paced a 19-4 Eagle run early in the game with 3 treys. King finished with 17 points while Josh Miller added 10 to go along with a game-high 11 rebounds.
With the victory, Azusa Pacific’s seventh in the past 8 meetings with Biola, the Cougars improve to 9-5 overall, 2-2 in the GSAC. Biola falls to 10-4 overall, 1-3 in the GSAC.