AZUSA, Calif. – Freshman Mike Meza came off the bench to score a career-high 15 points, including 14 in the second half, to lead the NAIA’s No. 21-ranked Azusa Pacific to a 79-71 come-from-behind victory over Golden State Athletic Conference rival San Diego Christian College Thursday evening in the Felix Event Center.
Meza single-handedly took over late in the game, scoring 10 points in an 11-2 Cougar run that snapped a 62-all tie and gave Azusa Pacific an insurmountable 73-64 lead following a pair of Meza free throws with 1:47 left in the game.
With the Cougars clinging to a 64-63 advantage, Meza tallied the Cougars’ next 10 counters, beginning with 4 in one possession. He made the first of 2 free throws and when Mike Danielian snagged Meza’s miss of the second attempt, the Cougars reset their offense and produced a Meza trey, his only attempt of the night, from the top of the key to put Azusa Pacific up 67-62. With a long-distance bucket under his belt, the 6-foot-4 Meza then took advantage of a tightened Hawk defense, and drove to the basket on 3 consecutive possessions, 2 producing fouls and 4 made free throws and another that ended in a lay-up.
“I wasn’t even thinking about it being a 3-point shot,” said Meza of his big basket. “Coach has been telling me to shoot more and make myself a threat. And after I hit the 3, I knew they were going to have to respect that shot, so I hit them with a pump fake and started driving to the basket.”
In all, Meza scored 12 points in the final 4 minutes of play and made sure the fine play of senior center David Burgess would not go for naught. The 6-foot-10 All-GSAC Burgess registered his eighth double-double of the season with game-highs of 19 points and 10 rebounds and carried a lethargic set of Cougars on his shoulders through much of the game.
After Azusa Pacific opened an early 8-point lead, the Cougars went flat, and San Diego Christian caught fire, putting together a 12-3 run late in the first half that resulted in a 40-36 Hawk lead at halftime.
“Really the only problem we had in the first half was energy,” said Azusa Pacific head coach Justin Leslie. “We were flat, and maybe it was because we played Tuesday, but they capitalized on that, made great shots and put us on our heels.”
The Cougars were atrocious from long distance, settling for jumpers and missing 9 of their first 11 shots from 3-point territory. The only salvation the Cougars had on offense was Burgess, who continually muscled his way around double teams and any big man San Diego Christian could throw at him.
“We were so aggressive in the second half,” said Leslie. “I told that guys at halftime that since they weren’t making shots from distance that they had to be tough-minded enough to get to the basket, and if they got there then get to the free throw line too.”
The Cougars got the message and attacked the basket. The Hawks whaled away and flying Cougars who in turn shot a season-high 38 free throw attempts, including 23 in the second half, more than twice as many as the 11 that SDCC attempted for the entire game.
A 14-5 Cougar run midway through the second half gave Azusa Pacific a 62-54 lead, but San Diego Christian’s Jesse LeBeau made back-to-back 3s and when James Green converted on a put-back, the Hawks pulled eventat 62-62 with 6 minutes left in the game. That’s when Meza stepped into the spotlight for the first time in his brief college career.
“Mike was so big for us tonight down the stretch,” said Leslie, who’ll take this victory as a gift on his 31st birthday. “What a great game. He was what we needed in some tough spots.”
With the victory, Azusa Pacific clinches its 17th straight 20-win season and assures itself of finishing no lower than third in the GSAC, which in turn gives the Cougars home court advantage in the first round of the GSAC Postseason Tournament, beginning a week from tonight. The Cougars improve to 20-9 overall, 13-6 in the GSAC. They finish the regular season Monday (March 2) at home against Westmont College at 7:30 p.m.