For the first time in 3 tries this season, the Cougars beat the NAIA’s No. 11-ranked Concordia University, thumping the Eagles, 67-46, in the semifinals of the Golden State Athletic Conference Postseason Tournament Saturday evening in the Felix Event Center.
The victory moves Azusa Pacific into Tuesday’s championship game vs. Fresno Pacific University, an 83-73 victor over California Baptist University in tonight’s other semifinal.
The reining GSAC Tournament champ, Concordia came into tonight’s game the hottest team in the GSAC, having won 12 straight, which included a 37-point thumping of GSAC regular-season champ Fresno Pacific, and taking 14 of its past 15. Among its string of victories was a 90-83 verdict over the Cougars which coupled with a 66-63 win in Irvine back in January gave Concordia its first regular-season sweep over Azusa Pacific since 1996.
Yet tonight the Cougars left no doubt that they would not be a 3-strike victim of Concordia. The Cougars made their first 3 shots, held Concordia to just 1 field goal for the first 10 minutes of play and rolled out to a fat 17-point lead at 23-6 following a Mike Danielian 3-pointer, 1 of 7 Azusa Pacific attempted and made in the first half as they took a 37-20 lead into the locker room at halftime.
As hot as Azusa Pacific was in the first 20 minutes, Concordia was the other end of the spectrum with a frigid .292 shooting clip, missing 17-of-24 shots in the first half, including 8 from 3-point territory.
“The simple reason for our victory tonight was the way we defended,” said Azusa Pacific head coach Justin Leslie. “Whatever they ran we had an answer for. I thought at the beginning of the year we could be this good on defense, I just didn’t think it would be 5 months before we proved it.”
Indeed the Cougars frustrated Concordia at every turn and on every shot. The GSAC’s second-best team from the 3-point arc, the Eagles made just 3 treys tonight, missing 15 from long range. Eagle guard Kingsley Constain, who was a perfect 6-for-6 from the arc in his last visit to the Felix Event Center back on Jan. 30, got off just one 3-point shot tonight and he didn’t’ make that one.
“We took a cue from the way Westminster played Concordia back in November at a tournament we were both at,” said Leslie. “They defended the 3-point line and went 3-on-3 in the middle. And guarding the 3-point line was huge for us tonight. We were not going to let Costain, (Cameron) Gliddon or (Eric) Beal get off from the 3-point line. Those 3 were our focus, and I was glad that (Terrence) Worthy took the most shots.”
And as good as the Cougars were on defense, they were as equally effective at the offensive end, putting together an 8-minute stretch in the first half in which they made 8-of-10 shots, including 4 3-pointers to consistently frustrate a Concordia unit that until tonight had had its way with every opponent over the past 6 weeks.
All-GSAC guard Dominique Johnson led Azusa Pacific with a game-high 17 points, which included a perfect 3-for-3 effort from 3-point territory. Johnson converted free throws to give Azusa Pacific a couple of 20-point leads early in the second half at 44-24 and 46-26. Concordia never got any closer than 12 in the second half, and when the Cougar offense stalled for a 7-minute stretch, going without a field goal in that span, freshman Marshall Johnson took control of the situation by cutting to the basket, avoiding a slashing Eagle defender with a nifty move, and making a lay-up that sparked a 12-0 Cougar run and put Azusa Pacific back up by 24 at 60-36 with 7 minutes left in the game.
Marshall Johnson finished with 12 points. He drained the opening shot of the game, a 3-pointer that sent Azusa Pacific on 10-3 run out of the tip-off. All-GSAC center David Burgess added 9 points to go along with a game-high 12 rebounds.
Sophomore point guard Mike Caffese drove the Cougars at both ends with game-highs of 6 assists and 7 steals (tying a personal career-high).
Concordia concluded the game shooting just 28-percent (15-for-53) from the floor.
“This is our biggest win of the season, no question,” said Leslie. “I’m very pleased with the way we played start to finish.”
Azusa Pacific now owns the longest winning streak in the GSAC at a modest 6 games. The last team to beat the Cougars was Fresno Pacific which registered a 94-83 verdict in Fresno on Feb. 17 to complete its first regular-season sweep of the Cougars since 1989.
Since Fresno Pacific has already clinched 1 of the GSAC’s 2 automatic berths into the NAIA Tournament by winning the GSAC regular season title, Azusa Pacific has been awarded the conference’s second automatic berth by virtue of playing Fresno Pacific in the tournament championship game. Thus Tuesday’s title tilt is for bragging rights and seeding in the 32-team NAIA Tournament field.
Concordia, which paced by Andre Murillo and Worthy and their 11 points, falls to 26-6 but is assured to get an at-large berth into the NAIA Tournament because of its high ranking.
Azusa Pacific improves to 23-9. Fresno Pacific, now 26-6, and Azusa Pacific tip off at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday (March 10) in the Felix Event Center.