FRESNO, Calif. – James Lewis, the GSAC’s leading scorer, tallied 12 of his game-high 23 points in the first half including 6 straight early on to give Fresno Pacific University a lead it would never let go of as the NAIA’s No. 8-ranked Sunbirds beat Azusa Pacific, 94-83, in the Special Events Center on the FPU campus Tuesday evening.
Lewis made a pair of free throws, a jumper and then a 3-pointer to jettison the Sunbirds to a 9-3 lead and put Azusa Pacific in a chase mode the rest of the night. After falling behind by 11 at 44-33 at halftime, the Cougars trailed by as much as 15 in the second half and could never get any closer than 8 over the final 13 minutes of the game.
“They hit us in the mouth to start the game and we really didn’t respond,” said Cougar coach Justin Leslie. “They are a good team, though. We forced them into the shots we wanted them to take and they made them.”
Todd Brown added 17 points and a team-high 8 rebounds, and Marcus West chipped in 15 points to highlight the Sunbirds’ Lewis-Brown-West triumvirate that came into the game averaging a combined 50 points a contest.
Still it was the secondary Sunbirds who made sure of the victory with strong role play. Jordan Wild added 12 points while reserves Kendall Holmes added 8 points on 4-for-5 shooting and Eric Hipolito finished with 6 on 3-for-4 shooting.
“Fresno Pacific can go a long way in the NAIA Tournament,” said Leslie, who should know since he has either played or coached in 12 of the past 13 NAIA Championship Tournaments. “The difference between Fresno now and earlier in the season is that they go beyond their 3 standouts players. They are getting strong contributions from 9 players.”
Playing before a large contingent of family and friends from his hometown of nearby Lodi, sophomore point guard Mike Caffese led Azusa Pacific with a career-high 23 points. Caffese buried back-to-back treys to open the second half and pull the Cougars to with 5 at 44-39. Five minutes later, he canned another trey, a career-high third on the night, to keep Azusa Pacific within 5 at 56-51, but the Sunbirds answered with a 9-2 mini-burst to put their lead back in double digits where stayed much of the remaining time of play.
“We had our chances but every time we scored they answered,” said Leslie. “Wild made some great plays for them, and Holmes was hitting contested shots.”
Wild and Brown got into foul trouble in the first half and Azusa Pacific took advantage at the line by making 8 free throws. However, FPU adjusted its defense to protect the duo and was able to maintain its advantage. With Brown freed from foul trouble in the second half, he scored 11 points in 17 minutes of play and nailed a big 3-pointer with 3:11 left in the game to put the Sunbirds out of Azusa Pacific’s reach at 82-69.
With the victory, Fresno Pacific collects its first regular-season sweep over Azusa Pacific since 1989 and only its second ever since the series started in 1966. The victory all but assures the Sunbirds of their first GSAC title since 1991 and their third in program history. They improve to 22-4 overall, 15-1 in the GSAC, holding a 3-game lead over second-place Concordia University with 4 games to play.
Azusa Pacific, which also got 17 points from Dominique Johnson and a season-high 16 from Kimarley Williams falls to 17-9 overall and 10-6 in the GSAC. The Cougars fall back into a tie for third place in the GSAC with Biola University.