AZUSA, Calif. – The long road back for Dave Burgess is near completion. The 6-foot-10 senior center is playing at full strength and in complete confidence, a pair of assets he hasn’t enjoyed on the basketball court in nearly 5 years.
Burgess scored 11 points, pulled down 16 rebounds, swatted 3 shots and dominated play in the paint to lead Azusa Pacific to a convincing 81-61 Golden State Athletic Conference victory over The Master’s College Tuesday evening the Felix Event Center.
“This was an unbelievably physical game at both ends of the court,” said Azusa Pacific coach Justin Leslie, “and Dave was a man among boys out there.”
Once one of the nation’s prized high school centers coming out of Woodbridge High in Irvine, Calif., Burgess has spent the better part of his life since 2004 rehabilitating bad ankles, broken knees and a shattered ego that all blew up at a pair of NCAA Division I schools and has since been on the mend for the past 18 months at Azusa Pacific. Tonight was the clearest sign yet that Burgess is completely back.
Over the past 3 weeks Burgess is averaging 16 points and 9.3 rebounds in the best 7-game stretch of his collegiate career that included a 6-game, 2-season stop at Gonzaga University and a 2-game, 1-year stint at BYU.
“There is a mental focus and toughness in Dave that has been the calming influence on our team in recent weeks,” said Leslie. “He has been the rock that we can lean on. This last stretch of games you can see his confidence growing, and we’re going to keep going to him.”
Burgess spearheaded a defense that held The Master’s triumvirate of Ryan Zamroz, Jeremy Haggerty and Dean Haldey, which came into the game averaging a combined 47 points a game, to just 14-for 43 (.326) shooting from the floor. On offense he muscled his way though a constant double-team to stabilize a schizophrenic offense.
“The double teams have turned into opportunities for us to score,” added Leslie. “Dave is keeping his poise, being on balance, and making great decisions out of the double team. He had only 7 shots tonight but he dominated the game.”
Junior Mike Danielian shook off the doldrums of a frustrating season with a season-high 20 points off the bench, and fellow junior Dominique Johnson scored all 20 of his game-high points in the second half to pace an Azusa Pacific offense that had an ebb and flow to it all night.
Behind Danielian’s deft first-half shooting in which he drained all 4 of his 3-point shots, Azusa Pacific built a 16-point lead at 38-22, following another Danielian bomb.
“At some point he had to start hitting,” chuckled Leslie as he referenced Danielian’s shooting woes over the past 5 weeks in which he has been shooting just 34-percent in 10 games. “Mike is a shooter and there are going to be ups and downs with him, so I’m hoping this is a sign of him closing out this season strong, because we need him.”
Interestingly, Danielian’s previous season-high was a 16-poing showing in a 10-point loss at The Master’s in Santa Clarita back on Dec. 12. Since then, he has been nearly non-existent in the Cougar offense, and it was never more evident then when he was shutout in a loss to Fresno Pacific.
“I don’t know what’s been going on this year, but I’ve been playing pretty bad,” said Danielian, who a year ago had 5 20-point games. “I’ve been trying to keep my head up and working on my shot. I don’t know why but this just happened for me tonight. We have a long season ahead, and I know I can contribute more than I’ve shown.”
Danielian’s last triple was also the Cougars’ last basket of the first half as the offense went south, and TMC closed with a 13-0 run to cut the Azusa Pacific lead to 38-35 at halftime.
A 15-4 Cougar run in the second half, book-ended by a Burgess put-back and a Johnson put-back pushed Azusa Pacific back into a 15-point lead. The Master’s never seriously threatened again.
“We did a better defensive job tonight than last time we played them,” said Leslie. “We were there on the catch, not flying through the air, and getting a hand in their face on the jump shots. Master’s plays a lot of one-on-one and isolation off the dribble, and they can score points in bunches. Other than the end of the first half, we didn’t have any defensive dead spots. We were pretty consistent.”
Azusa Pacific held The Master’s without a field goal for 5 minutes late in the game and turned a 9-point lead into a burgeoning 23-point cushion at 81-58 following Johnson’s only 3-point basket of the night.
“Every game from here on out is potentially a season-maker or breaker for us,” said Leslie with his team currently in a 3-way tie for second place in the GSAC. “Normally March is my favorite time of the year because of what is on the line. March came early this year. We have to have a sense of urgency the rest of the way if we hope to get back to the NAIA Tournament.”
Azusa Pacific has made 13 straight NAIA Tournament appearances, the second longest active streak in the association behind Georgetown College (Ky.). Only 3 games separate second and eighth place in the GSAC with still 9 conference games to play, and the best minds in the game figure that only 3 GSAC teams will advance to Kansas City, Mo., for the national tournament.
“Every game in the GSAC is big right now,” said Burgess. “We’re in a dogfight and any win is great.”
Kimarley Williams added 12 points to aid the Cougar cause.
With the victory, Azusa Pacific improves to 15-7 overall, 8-4 in the GSAC. The Master’s, which at one time was 11-3 overall and just a game out of first in the GSAC, has now lost 3 straight and 4 of its past 5 to fall to 13-9 overall, 5-7 in the GSAC.