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December 1, 2009
Gary Pine
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AZUSA, Calif. – Coaches rarely admit to it, but there is such a thing as a good loss, also known as a moral victory. However, in light of tonight’s performance, there’s no need at this time to debate its validity.

This was a bad loss; a commodity all coaches willingly acknowledge, and it was as bad as they come.

The NAIA’s No. 24-ranked Azusa Pacific squandered complete control and a 13-point second-half lead to fall hard to unranked The Master’s College, 72-69, in both teams’ Golden State Athletic Conference opener in the Felix Event Center Tuesday night. It’s a loss that may haunt the Cougars for a long time, possibly well into March.

“We need some consistent leadership right now,” said Azusa Pacific coach Justin Leslie. “We have a lot of Indians and no chief. We need our upperclassmen to step up. This is their team and their season, and they have to be able to execute key plays at key moments on offense and defense. We had our chances to win and just didn’t execute.”

Azusa Pacific, which was coming off a 40-point blowout of Montana Tech, a team The Master’s beat 3 nights later by 11, used a 22-5 run early in the tonight’s game to roll out to a comfortable 22-9 lead 8 minutes into play. The Cougar defense wreaked havoc on the Mustang backcourt, and at one point it produced 5 consecutive lay-ups as Mike Caffese and host of other Cougars continually picked Mustang pockets.

Azusa Pacific was having its way, making shots, converting free throws and forcing The Master’s into turnovers. The Cougars parlayed a 9-point halftime advantage into a 46-33 lead 2 minutes into the second half, and seemingly were in cruise control toward their 18th victory in the past 22 meetings with The Master’s.

However, back-to-back defensive breakdowns allowed The Master’s guard Joey Fuca to knock down consecutive 3 point baskets and instead of feeling their tiring legs as Azusa Pacific sprinted up and down the court, the Mustangs felt a surge of adrenalin that carried them the remainder of the game.

Fuca’s bombs, part of a 16-point night for the junior guard, spurred an 18-4 Mustang run that was capped by a Thomas Millar lay-up that put TMC up 51-50. Though the 2 teams traded leads 4 more times over the final 12 minutes, the Cougar offense was lost and out of control by this time, counting on a variety of circus shots and 3-point bombs to somehow answer The Master’s steady 16-for-30 second-half shooting.

The long arms of senior center Raphael Harris toyed with Azusa Pacific’s undersized frontcourt as he fashioned a personal-best career night with game-highs of 24 points and 13 rebounds. It was his last rebound of the game, one of the Mustangs’ whopping 14 off the offensive glass, that nearly sealed the victory with just 77 seconds left, allowing The Master’s to chew an additional 34 seconds off the clock.

Azusa Pacific still had a chance to win the game following a Reggie Owens lay-up to pull Azusa Pacific to within one at 70-69 and a Millar missed free throw with 18 seconds left. Harris though forced Caffese into an off-balance running hook shot as he drove the paint with 7 seconds remaining, and followed with a pair of free throws for the final margin of victory.

“Harris dominated the game tonight,” said Leslie. “He consistently altered shots and then scored on the blocks. He had a great game, and my hat is off to him.”

Owens paced Azusa Pacific with 18 points and 10 rebounds. No other Cougar had more than 2 rebounds, and as a result The Master’s out-rebounded the Cougars by a hefty 39-28 margin.

“Believe it not we do box-out drills and we do practice rebounding,” said Leslie, “but boy we sure didn’t do a good job of it tonight.”

Junior Caleb Burgess added 11 points on 5-for-6 shooting. Sophomore Marshall Johnson was the only other Cougar in double digits with 11 points as well.

“They had 72 points. We should be able to out-score that,” added Leslie as he reviewed the box score. “We just melted in the second half.”

After getting 55 points from its bench in last Wednesday’s win over Montana Tech, Azusa Pacific collected just 14 points tonight from the reserves, who were a combined 4-for-17 shooting.

With the loss, Azusa Pacific, which is the GSAC’s all-time winningest program, falls to 4-3 overall and suffers its fourth GSAC opening defeat in the past 6 years. The Master’s improves to 5-1 overall, 1-0 in the GSAC.

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