AZUSA, Calif. – Generally speaking, coaches don’t like to look ahead. They teach “the here and the now” to their players, knowing full well that eyes focused elsewhere oftentimes lead to eminent disaster.
However, Azusa Pacific men’s basketball coach Justin Leslie admitted that 10 minutes into tonight’s game, he was already thinking ahead about another Golden State Athletic Conference road encounter less than 48 hours away.
Azusa Pacific scored 14 of the game’s first 17 points, and then motored out to a 20-point lead with 8 minutes left in the first half, which allowed the Cougars to cruise the rest of the way to a 94-68 GSAC victory over Hope International University Tuesday evening before a crowd of 607 in the Felix Event Center.
Twelve different Cougars scored and none played more than 22 minutes as Leslie rested players in preparation for Thursday’s quick-turnaround visit to San Diego Christian College in El Cajon, Calif. In the meantime, Azusa Pacific collected its 23rd straight victory over HIU and it’s 15th in a row by more than 20 points.
“It was critical that we get out to a good start tonight, because to be honest, I was thinking about San Diego the entire way,” said Leslie. “We had only 3 guys play over 20 minutes. Therefore, it was good to go out and impose our will and set the tone with our defense.”
All-GSAC center David Burgess played one of his finest games as a Cougar, flying over the floor to track down loose balls, while dropping in 12 points and neutralizing a larger-than-usual HIU frontline with 5 blocked shots.
Sophomore Mike Caffese continued his pleasant emergence as one of the GSAC’s best point guards, spearheading inspired Cougar play at both ends of the court with a season-high 8 assists while hounding the Royals into many of their 19 turnovers, collecting 4 steals himself.
Led by Burgess and fellow senior Kimarley Williams, Azusa Pacific made 9 of its first 11 shots while holding Hope to just 4 field goals in the first 14 minutes of play which in turn resulted in a 48-25 Cougar lead at halftime.
In an effort to counter Burgess’ 6-foot-10, 255-pound frame around the basket, Hope International featured 6-foot-10, 265-pound freshman Tom Granado and 6-foot-8, 240-pound junior Boran Rajcic. Yet, Burgess had little problem making his presence felt with 8 points and 2 rebounds in the first 7 minutes to propel the Cougars to a quick 20-7 lead. From there, Burgess started swatting and stuffing shots.
“Most of our screw ups in the first half, when they had open looks, Dave cleaned up for us,” said Leslie. “They had 3 sure lay-ups in the first half if he doesn’t block them. There were big-time plays. He has to be that anchor defensively and has to play that hard every night for us to be as good as we want to be.”
Williams took advantage of the bigger and slower Rajcic, sprinting by him and splitting the Royal defense for a team- and season-high 15 points, 12 of which came off lay-ups.
“It’s just a nightmare for a ‘big’ to try to defend Kimarley when he steps away from the basket,” said Leslie. He made some really nice finishes tonight. He’s been missing in action on the offensive end for awhile, so to have him come alive like that tonight will hopefully boost his confidence and get him rolling, because his history proves that he is a scorer.”
Starters Dominique Johnson and Marshall Johnson and reserve Brayden Bell each registered 11 points to lead a balanced Cougar attack that also featured 8 points each from Mike Danielian and Zane Meehl.
Granado finished with game-highs of 26 points and 12 rebounds, 20 and 9 of which came in the second half when the game was out of hand.
Azusa Pacific led by as much as 26 points in the first half, going up 46-20 following a Marshall Johnson trey. The Cougars pushed the advantage to 30 in the second half.
Tonight’s play from Caffese is a continuation of his evolving play in the past month. Over the past 9 games, Caffese is averaging nearly 7 assists against just 2 turnovers in 25 minutes of play per outing.
“In my opinion, assist-to-turnover ratio is the measure of a point guard” said Leslie, “and Mike is doing a very nice job. Defensively, he is setting the tone up top. He was harassing their guards tonight and did not allow them to get into their offense in the first half.”
With the victory, Azusa Pacific, which has now won 6 of its past 8, improves to 12-6 overall, 5-3 in the GSAC. Hope International falls to 3-12 overall, 0-8 in the GSAC.