AZUSA, Calif – The NAIA’s No. 24-ranked Azusa Pacific put together a 26-0, 7-minute blitzkrieg midway through the second half that turned a potential major upset into a business-as-usual 74-57 nonconference victory over Occidental College Tuesday night at the Felix Event Center.
Junior guard Ashton Roberts had little to do with the game-turning run and yet he had everything to do with the victory. The reserve point guard single-handedly carried, and eventually sparked, the Cougars through a set of doldrums that allowed Oxy to not only stay within striking distance but maintain a lead through nearly all of the first 30 minutes of the game.
An NCAA DIII team coming off an 11-14 season, Occidental out-executed, out-hustled and ultimately out-played the Cougars, leading by as much as 8 points in the first half and pushing a 31-27 halftime cushion into a couple of 6-point advantages in the second half. About the only Cougar they couldn’t corral was Roberts, a former walk-on who made the team 2 years ago because of his quickness but has now come a long way from the tentative rookie who was forced out of a redshirt and into action by the injuries of 3 other point guards. The growth pains of yesterday have turned into the clutch performance of tonight.
“Ashton was the spark in the game,” said Cougar coach Justin Leslie. “He brought defensive energy out there that was contagious. He rallied the guys that were on the floor with him every minute that he was out there. He was the calming influence.”
Roberts, who had never made more than 1 three-pointer in a game before tonight, tied his career-high with 11 points, making 4-of-6 shots including a trio of treys. In fact, the only shot he made inside the arc was a lay-up in the middle of the 26-0 Cougar run, his only scoring contribution to that run. Yet his play, which included 5 assists, 2 steals and a blocked shot – and he’s listed at 5-foot-9 – all in 19 minutes off the bench, is what carried a set of Cougars who otherwise missed 16 of their first 28 shots, including 11 three-pointers.
“When Ashton arrived here he was an absolutely terrible shooter,” said Leslie, “but I didn’t blink tonight when he took those 3s, and that is a testimony to his character. He is the first or second one in the gym every day. He’s been working, and he’s turned a weakness into a strength.”
Junior forward Caleb Burgess scored 10 consecutive points on 4 shots, capped by back-to-back 3s, in an 84-second span to highlight the amazing run in which the game went from a 48-all tie with 11:43 left to play into a 74-48 Cougar lead with 4-and-a-half minutes to go.
A squad that had been ice-cold all night, suddenly torched the nets and the Tigers in which the Cougars made 10-of-14shots. Outside of that momentary burst Azusa Pacific shot a paltry .377 (20-for-53) clip on the night, and when Mason Maynard dropped in a lay-up with 6 minutes left in the game, it would be the Cougars last field goal of the night as they reverted back to the former ways, missing their final 10 shots. But it mattered little by then.
Azusa Pacific forced Occidental into 26 turnovers, including 10 in the 26-0 run of which 6 came on 6 consecutive Tiger possessions.
“What made that run possible is that we had some defensive energy,” said Leslie. “It is no coincidence that when you actually work hard on defense, shots fall on offense. Though they had the lead at halftime, I knew they were dragging. They had used their time outs. It was only a matter of time before their legs were going to go, and we had to keep rotating fresh bodies out on to the floor.”
The Cougars missed 5 of its first 6 shots and committed 6 of their 13 turnovers in the first 6 minutes of play, allowing Occidental to scoot out to an 11-3 lead. Azusa Pacific rallied back and momentarily took an 18-17 lead on a Reggie Owens’ 3-pointer from the top of the key. But Oxy’s Deshun McCoy answered with 2 of his game-high 18 points with a back-door lay-up and the Tigers resumed its lead that it kept 6 minutes into the second half.
Roberts canned this third and final trey from the left corner to give the Cougars their first lead of the second half at 44-42.
“I worked all summer on nothing but shooting,” said Roberts. “I’m ready. No more cringing when I shoot the ball. I showed coach I can step it up and make big plays when he needs to me to.”
Occidental answered and kept the game tied until the Tigers succumbed to fatigue under the pressure of Azusa Pacific’s relenting defense that produced a hefty 17 steals.
Senior All-American Dominique Johnson scored 5 straight points, including a quick dunk flying through the key that gave the Cougars a 55-48 lead midway through the second half. He finished with 10 points, 4 assists and a game-high 5 steals.
Owens, who gave the Cougars the lead for good at 50-48 on a lay-up, tallied 12 points but was shutout on the glass as Azusa Pacific was out-rebounded, 33-29, for the first time in 3 games this season.
Junior point guard Mike Caffese recorded a game-high 7 assists and 3 steals. Together, he teamed with his back-up Roberts for a combined 14 points, 12 assists and 5 steals.
“Mike and I are both high energy players and we feed off of each other,” said Roberts, who admitted that this was probably his finest personal moment as a Cougar. “If I see Mike getting after it, I just want coach to call my name so I can go get after the point guard just like he is.”
Azusa Pacific has now won 11 straight over Occidental since 1982 and improves to 3-0 on the season. Occidental, which also got 12 points from 6-foot-10 San Anderson, falls to 0-1.