FULLERTON, Calif. – Maybe Azusa Pacific can play all its games on the road.
While the Cougars have inexplicably struggled at home this season, they’ve looked every bit like a Top 25-ranked team on the GSAC road, and tonight they held true to form, rolling to a 75-54 Golden State Athletic Conference victory at Hope International.
Yes, it is Hope International, a team the Cougars have defeated 25 consecutive times by an average margin of 33 points a victory, but this set of Royals is not like past ones. Already this season, Hope International has given Westmont, Fresno Pacific and The Master’s a run for their money, and the Royals nearly knocked off Cal Baptist on the road in Riverside, eventually falling in overtime.
So this, a 21-point win, is something to note for Azusa Pacific, and of course it came on the road.
The Cougars never trailed, running out to a 5-0 lead to start the game and steadily pushing their advantage throughout the night. They relied on good shooting and a balanced attack to keep the Royals at bay and record their season-high fourth straight win.
“For whatever reason we have shot the ball well on the road,” said Cougar coach Justin Leslie, “and this game is so much easier when you shoot well, especially from the perimeter. We’re talented offensively, and we play well when we’re ahead. We have confidence and therefore we play smarter and execute.”
It’s not lost on Leslie that Azusa Pacific’s current win streak coincides with Reggie Owens’ emergence as an unstoppable low-post force. Owens registered his third double-double of the season, tallying game highs of 15 points and 12 rebounds, all off the bench, to lead the Cougars. Over the past 4 games he is averaging 15 points and 8.1 rebounds.
“Reggie is a very skilled post player and finishes well,” said Leslie. “Hope made a concerted effort to keep the ball out of his hands, and our guys had to make some really good passes. They were doubling or fronting Reggie, and yet we got the ball to him.”
A James Staniland trey followed by an Owens’ put-back gave the Cougars their first double-digit lead at 19-7 less than 7 minutes into the game. Back-to-back Owens’ lay-ups pushed the Azusa Pacific lead to 33-20, and the Cougars kept the 13-point cushion at halftime on another Owens lay-up and a 37-24 score.
Hope International scored the first 6 points to start the second half to pull to within 7 at 37-30, but the Cougar defense tightened, and the Royals managed just 4 points over the next 5 minutes as Azusa Pacific moved back out to a double-digit lead. All-American Dominique Johnson sparked the Cougars with 5 points of an 11-4 run, including 2 on a breakaway dunk. Mason Maynard’s jumper pushed Azusa Pacific to a 50-36 lead with just over 12 minutes left in the game.
Johnson and fellow guard Marshall Johnson supported Owens’ performance with 14 points apiece. Marshall canned 5-of-6 shots, including 2 beyond the arc, and led a Cougar contingent that produced its second-best shooting effort on the road this season. The Cougars canned 28-of-53 shots (.528) and relied on a 15-for-27 (.556) clip in the second half to pull away from the Royals.
The Cougars committed a season-high 21 turnovers, but a bench that grabbed 26 of the Cougars’ 38 rebounds and helped produce 13 second-chance points helped off-set an unusual night of ball-handling.
“This was a very physical game,” said Leslie, “and who would have thought that about an Azusa Pacific-Hope game 10 years ago. Overall, the GSAC is changing. When I played, the conference was execution, but now it is about being physical. It’s been a constant, and every last one of our GSAC games has been physical this year. I think that bodes well for our conference. Whoever makes it to Kansas City (NAIAs) will be ready.”
Azusa Pacific, which improves to 12-6 on the season and moves into third place in the GSAC at 5-3, has little time to enjoy this victory. The Cougars turn around to play San Diego Christian on Thursday (Jan. 21) in what are becoming the tough confines of home – the Felix Event Center. Tip-off is set for 7:30 p.m.