SANTA BARBARA, Calif. – Sophomore guard Mike Caffese ignited a 17-2 Cougar run at the start of the second half to lead the NAIA’s No. 16- ranked Azusa Pacific to a 70-60 come-from-behind Golden State Athletic Conference victory at Westmont College Tuesday evening.
Though he finished with just 7 points and a respectable 4 assists against 1 turnover, it was his dogged defense that produced 4 steals in the first 5 minutes of the second frame and sparked a lethargic set of Cougars who turned a 33-26 halftime deficit into a 43-35 lead. The Cougars never trailed again.
“We turned up the energy to start the second half,” said Caffese, “and we were getting steals which led to transition baskets, and we’re a better team when we can play in transition.”
Westmont dictated the pace of play in the first half, dominating the offensive glass and out-hustling the Cougars to a 7-point halftime lead. However, Westmont missed 7 of its first 8 shots of the second half and committed 5 turnovers, including 4 in a 60-second stretch in which Caffese wreaked havoc on any Warrior ball-handler, in particular guard Christopher Jackson.
Caffese’s backcourt pick of Jackson resulted in a Dominique Johnson dunk and an Azusa Pacific 37-35 lead, the Cougars’ first lead since a 5-4 score 3 minutes into the game. Kimarley Williams followed with a 3-pointer and then a breakaway lay-up off another Caffese steal to complete the comeback and turn the game completely around.
“Mike is such a difference maker for us defensively,” said Cougar coach Justin Leslie. “He is just contagious. When he got the steals in the second half, he made the right decision when to go and when to back it out and run the show. It was a very complete game for him.”
Johnson led everyone with 18 points, while All-GSAC center David Burgess finished with 11 points and a game-high 11 rebounds for his seventh double-double of the season. Burgess threw down a dunk off a nifty Caffese dish in the key to thwart a Warrior comeback in which Westmont rallied to within 2 at 52-50 with 8 minutes left in the game. Burgess followed with 4 more points for his own 6-2 mini-run against the Warriors to push the Cougar lead 58-52 lead. Moments later, Williams scored on another breakaway lay-up off a Mike Danielian steal to give Azusa Pacific its first double-digit lead at 62-52 with just over 3 minutes left in the game.
Williams scored 12 of his 15 points in the second half to help Azusa Pacific secure its 11th win in the past 12 meetings with the Warriors, the best stretch the Cougars have ever enjoyed since the Westmont series opened in 1971.
Azusa Pacific was out-rebounded 24-14 in the first half, but led by Burgess and Williams the Cougars kept play on the glass square in the second half and forced Westmont to miss 20-of-32 shots over the final 20 minutes of play.
With the victory, Azusa Pacific moves to 14-6 overall, 7-3 in the GSAC, alone in second place at the halfway point of GSAC play. Westmont falls to 11-8 overall, 5-5 in the GSAC.