AZUSA, Calif – All-American Dominique Johnson scored 11 of his game-high 26 points in the final 9 minutes to propel the NAIA’s No. 24-ranked Azusa Pacific to a 109-99 see-saw victory over Evergreen State College on the closing day of the 23rd Annual Cougar Classic.
Johnson led a trio of double-digit scoring Cougars and was aided by a highly effective bench that allowed him to take over the game after Azusa Pacific squandered a 17-point first half lead.
Johnson buried 3-of-4 from beyond the arc, his last giving Azusa Pacific an 86-84 lead with 8:45 remaining. The Cougars would never trail again, but that didn’t seem to be a concern way back in the first half when Azusa Pacific rolled to a 46-29 lead after Johnson drained trey with just over 3 minutes left in the half. The Cougars were in the midst of winning a sprint from the opening tip, using an 18-7 run to easily pull away from Evergreen State.
But the Geoducks had their own rabbits, particularly in guard Nathan Menifee, and a high-scoring affair was nothing unusual for an ESC squad that tallied 11 90-point games last year, including one in the opening round of the NAIA Tournament.
Menifee scored 19 of his team-high 28 points after Azusa Pacific’s early 17-point roll-out, nailing a 3-pointer to begin the Geoducks’ march back into the game. Behind Menifee’s play, Evergreen State whittled the deficit to a manageable 7 at 56-49 by halftime.
The momentum shift continued in the second half and when Desmond Martin rained down 1 of the Geoducks’ 11 3-pointers, Evergreen State had its first lead of the game at 84-83 at the 9:13 mark. That’s when a well-rested Johnson, who had just re-entered the game, took over.
“Dominique was very good tonight,” said Azusa Pacific coach Justin Leslie. “Our bench was very effective which in turn allowed me to rest Dominique more. Given the intensity and physicality of the games both teams had to play last night, I think Dominique was able to have a little more energy at the end than some of the their guys.”
Sophomore Marshall Johnson carried the Cougars out of the gate, scoring 12 of his 19 points in the first half as Azusa Pacific quickly built a double-digit advantage.
Junior center Reggie Owens registered his second straight solid performance with 18 points, 5 rebounds and 5 assists in only his second game as a Cougar. His lay-up with 6 minutes to go gave Azusa Pacific a 4-point lead at 93-89, and his first 3-pointer as a Cougar pushed the advantage to an insurmountable 11 at 103-92 with 2 minutes remaining.
All 11 Cougars who played scored, and junior David Stafford led a Cougar bench that combined for 30 points, 15 rebounds and 11 assists. Stafford had 9 points, 4 rebounds and 3 assists of his own.
“It’s encouraging that we shot the ball so well,” said Leslie as he panned the stat sheet and noticed Azusa Pacific converted 36-of-66 (.545) shots. “Evergreen gave us quality looks, and we were ready to knock them down.”
For the second straight night, no Cougar played over 30 minutes as Leslie got as many players possible into the game to give them an early-season feel of play.
“These games the past 2 nights were very difficult and we’re fortunate to come away with 2 wins,” said Leslie. “The caliber of play of both Embry-Riddle and Evergreen will do us well in preparing for the GSAC.”
Both Embry-Riddle and Evergreen State, which made up half of the 4-team Cougar Classic, are nationally-ranked in the NAIA Division II preseason poll, and both teams gave NAIA Division I nationally-ranked Biola and Azusa Pacific all they could handle, giving credence to those who argue that 2-division NAIA basketball is passé.
With the win, Azusa Pacific improves to 2-0, while Evergreen State falls to 1-2. The Cougars return to action Tuesday (Nov. 17) when they host Occidental College in a 7:30 p.m. game in the Felix Event Center.