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March 10, 2009
Gary Pine
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AZUSA, Calif. – Reduced to their road black uniforms, the other end of the scorer’s table and, of all things, the “visitor” on its own scoreboard, Azusa Pacific still held serve on its own court with a resounding 81-63 victory over top-seeded Fresno Pacific University to win the championship of the 16th Annual Golden State Athletic Conference Postseason Tournament in the Felix Event Center Tuesday night.

With the victory, Azusa Pacific’s eighth overall GSAC Tournament title and its third in the past 4 years, the Cougars clinch the conference’s second automatic berth into next week’s 32-team NAIA Championship Tournament in Kansas City, Mo. Fresno Pacific claimed the GSAC’s first berth last week as the conference’s regular-season champion.

With that regular-season title in hand Fresno Pacific was awarded the No. 1 seed for the postseason tournament, and certain privileges came with that top billing, such as choice of uniform, bench and home team declaration for the title game, all of which the Sunbirds opted for in Azusa Pacific’s Felix Event Center in an effort to throw the Cougars off-stride on their home court, particularly after the third-seeded Cougars pasted a 21-point verdict on second-seed Concordia University during Saturday’s semifinals.

The Cougars, however, were unfazed. They made a season-high 14 3-pointers and had other motivations on their mind.

“This team beat us twice during the regular season, even on our home court” said Cougar reserve Mike Danielian. “That’s motivation enough, and we couldn’t let them beat us 3 times and sweep us.”

And Danielian did his part.

The junior guard buried his first 6 shots from the 3-point arc, 3 in each half, on his way to a season-high 21-point performance that sparked a Cougar offense that sprinted by Fresno Pacific. Danielian nailed 3 consecutive 3-pointers late in the first half, igniting a 22-4 Cougar run that changed the complexion of the game.

Trying to keep pace with Fresno Pacific’s All-GSAC guard Marcus West who scored 17 of the Sunbirds’ first 22 points, the Cougars switched defensive assignments and in turn found their own long-range bomb in Danielian, who scored all 9 of his first-half points in the final 7 minutes of the half as the Cougars turned a 22-20 deficit into a 42-26 halftime lead, capped by Mike Caffese’s 25-foot jumper at the buzzer.

“I had 2 open looks, one where I came off a screen and another where my man fell down, and hit my first 2 shots,” said Danielian. “That just got me going, and luckily my shot kept falling tonight.”

It was a personal redemption for a player who led the team in 3-point field goals last year but has endured a roller-coaster of a 2009 campaign in which he had tallied just one other 20-point effort this season.

“We have not been a good 3-point shooting team this year,” said Leslie. “It simply hasn’t been a strength of ours. Our strength tonight was that we took open ones. We moved the ball side to side, and then we made open shots.”

The Sunbirds, who earlier this season beat Azusa Pacific by 7 (98-91) in Azusa and by 11 (94-83) in Fresno for their first season-sweep of the Cougars since 1991, changed their game plan at the start of the second half and went to a 5-wide attack on offense. The scheme worked for a moment, producing an 8-2 run that pulled the Sunbirds to within 10 at 44-34 just 2 minutes into the half.

Out of a timeout, the Cougars changed their defense and on offense began to attack the basket, using David Burgess’ size and Dominique Johnson’s quickness to score points in the paint. Azusa Pacific scored the next 10 points in a 4-minute span, completed by a reminder that the Cougar perimeter game had not gone dormant and was still hot when Danielian buried yet another trey to put Azusa Pacific back up by 20 at 54-34.

From there Azusa Pacific kept the margin near 20 over the final 14 minutes, frustrating the GSAC’s top offense and keeping the Sunbirds nearly 20 points below their season average. Fresno Pacific scored just 41 points over the final 27 minutes of play.

“Man, we defended nicely,” said Leslie. “That’s where we have to hang our hat. If we defend like that we can be pretty good.”

Johnson had a pretty good night at 3-point line as well, knocking down 4 shots from the arc and finishing with 17 points. Burgess tallied 10 points and a game-high 8 rebounds, while Kimarley Williams added 9 points, 7 rebounds and 3 steals. Point guard Mike Caffese kept the Cougar offense in high rev with his 9 points, 9 assists and 2 steals.

Westfinished with a game-high 27 points after registering 17 in the first 14 minutes of the game. GSAC Player of the Year James Lewis had 19 points on 5-for-11 shooting, while fellow All-GSAC honoree Todd Brown had just 6 points and missed 9-of-11 shots.

“We kept running fresh bodies at them so that they could not get any rhythm with one player guarding them,” said Leslie.

Azusa Pacific has now won a season-high 7 straight, winning 5 of those games by 15 or more points, to improve to 24-9 heading into the NAIA Tournament.

“We’re playing as a team,” said Danielian. “Everyone is playing together and everyone is passing the ball. As you can see by this tournament, we’re beating pretty good teams by double digits. I think we’re all clicking. It gives us some boost so that we can do some damage in Kansas City.”

Fresno Pacific falls to 26-7.

Both teams will be confirmed into the NAIA Tournament Wednesday afternoon when the 32-team field is announced from the national office in Kansas City. First-round pairings and the entire bracket will be released Thursday.