AZUSA, Calif. – Azusa Pacific was anxious to get back on the court; ready to erase the memory of a nightmarish moment just 24 hours before; hopeful that it could re-establish confidence and a healthy identity of itself.
It took some dogged determination and nearly 40 minutes of hard play, but the Cougars walked out of the University of Redlands’ Currier Gym with an improved sense of who they are after Azusa Pacific bounced Redlands, 93-75, before a sparse crowd in the Bulldogs’ historic home gym.
After suffering the worst loss in Felix Event Center history last night – a 33-point crushing by the NAIA’s top-ranked Mountain State University -- Azusa Pacific gladly hit the road tonight, literally getting a warm welcome for its first appearance in the sweltering Currier Gym in 17 years.
“I think emotionally last night was tough to battle back from,” said Cougar coach Justin Leslie. “All I asked of the guys was a consistent effort. I knew it wasn’t going to be the prettiest of games, but the guys battled. They played hard, and some of our key guys made goods strides in the second half.”
The Cougars never trailed, running out to a 10-point lead 4 minutes into the game, but double-digit cushions swung wildly throughout the night between Azusa Pacific teetering on the brink of a blowout and the Cougars trying to hold off a fast-charging set of Bulldogs.
In the end Dominique Johnson’s 14-second half points and Caleb Burgess’ second-consecutive game of hot shooting carried Azusa Pacific to a much-needed victory heading into a week of academic finals for the players.
Johnson tallied a game-high 21 points to go along with a team-high 7 rebounds, and Burgess scored a career-high 19 points, burying 8-of-11 shots, including 3-of-5 from the 3-point arc. His lone trey of the second half, a bomb from the top of the key off a Mike Caffese dish, calmed the waters and spurred a game-ending 9-2 Cougar run over the final 2:45 of play.
“This was a perfect opportunity for me because of how Redlands’ play, the up-speed, fast play,” said Burgess, who is 7-for-13 from the 3-point arc the past 2 games. “I was getting good shots and not trying to force anything. Coach has put a lot of confidence in me as a shooter. I know if I have as much confidence in me as he has in me, then I’ll be good.”
Behind Burgess’ deft shooting, Azusa Pacific quickly built a 14-point lead and managed it throughout the final 11 minutes of the first half, settling for a 46-31 halftime lead. The Bulldogs used 9-2 start to the second half to pull to within 8 at 48-40 before the Cougars answered with 12 straight points on the scoring 6 different players to quickly put the lead back at 20 at 60-40 following a Reggie Owens’ jumper.
As quickly as Azusa Pacific notched the 20-point advantage, Redlands seemingly erased much of it in lightening-like speed as well. The Bulldogs rallied back to within 7 on a couple of occasions, the last being at 72-65 on a Jordan Sanvictores put-back, giving the Cougars cause for concern for the final 8 minutes of the game.
However, sophomore Marshall Johnson scored 5 straight points, including 3 off his only trey of the night, to put the Cougars back into a double-digit lead which it kept the rest of the game. Marshall Johnson finished with 16 points and 6 rebounds.
“I told the team this is the Master’s and School of Mines all over again,” said Leslie, referring to losses earlier this season in which Azusa Pacific blew significant second half leads. “I told them that we had to make sure that they get only one shot and that we controll and dominate the boards, which we did. Offensively we had to work for great shots and not settle. That’s the first time we’ve done that.”
Junior point guard Mike Caffese, who was slapped with 3 fouls and spent much of the first half on the bench, stayed out of foul trouble in the second half and finished with 9 assists and collected 4 of the Cougars’ 15 steals as Azusa Pacific induced 24 Bulldog turnovers.
Azusa Pacific has now won 39 straight over NCAA Division III teams and has not lost to a DIII school since 1991. With the victory, Azusa Pacific improves to 6-4 on the season while Redlands falls to 3-4.