AZUSA, Calif. – Azusa Pacific head coach Justin Leslie has said all along that defense would be the key to his team’s success, that good defense would lead to good offense. Tonight his Cougars put the sermon into practice.
Behind the play of All-American Dominique Johnson and his game-high 30 points and 5 steals, Azusa Pacific blitzed San Diego Christian College, 102-72, in a Golden State Athletic Conference game in the Felix Event Center.
Johnson spurred a 23-3 first-half run over a 6-minute span in which Azusa Pacific forced 5 Hawk turnovers and limited San Diego Christian to just 1 field goal as the Cougars turned a 27-23 lead to a whopping 50-26 advantage with more than 2 minutes left in the first half. The Cougars scored 8 straight points off turnovers, 4 of which came off a pair of Johnson steals and rim-rattling dunks.
“The easy opportunities we got because of our defense was the story of the game,” said Leslie. “We did a fantastic job of disrupting their rhythm and getting them out of their spots. They just never got comfortable.”
Johnson’s season-high 5 picks were part of an 11-steal night for Azusa Pacific. The Cougars got 18 points off fast breaks, 12 in the first half, and tallied 34 counters off turnovers.
“My defense hasn’t been very good the past few games,” said Johnson. “I just wasn’t reacting very well. I was focused on that tonight, and I anticipated their passes much better and was able to get into the line of the ball.”
The Cougars shot well from the floor, canning 35-of-66 (.530) shots, including 20-of-35 in the first half. At one point, they knocked down 9-of-11 shots, including a trio of treys. Senior guard Mike Danielian, who was making his first start of the season, buried a pair of treys as part of a 10-point effort.
When the Cougars weren’t hitting their perimeter shots or getting fast-break lay-ups, they turned to a half-court game that relied on the inside play of center Reggie Owens. Owens put together his fifth straight strong outing, registering 18 points on 7-for-9 shooting. In all, Azusa Pacific tallied 46 points in the paint.
“Since San Diego Christian came into the game with just 4 blocked shots in GSAC play I told our guys that if they got the ball near the basket they were going to be able to score,” said Leslie. “We did a pretty good job, and of course Reggie softened them up. He is just an absolute force.”
Junior guard David Stafford, who was making his eighth start in place of the injured Mike Caffese, enjoyed his best game of the season, dropping in 12 points on a 5-for-7 clip to go along with 6 rebounds and a pair of assists.
Just over a week ago, Azusa Pacific won a game at Fresno Pacific with a pair of technical free throws at the end of regulation play. In an odd turn of events, tonight the Cougars yielded a pair of free throws before the opening tip-off. Cougar sophomore Marshall Johnson was slapped with a technical for dunking during warm-ups. San Diego Christian’s Tyler Mutton made both free throws, and the Hawks had a 2-0 lead before a second had ticked off the clock. Johnson, the Cougars’ second-leading scorer, was removed from the starting line-up by Leslie and put on the bench where he stayed for the first 9 minutes of the game. Still, Johnson produced 9 points and 5 rebounds in 16 minutes of play.
San Diego Christian, which was led by Mutton’s 14 points, never got closer any closer than 17 points on a couple of occasions in the second half. Another Cougar run of 17-3 in which Dominique Johnson and Owens combined for 15 of the points put Azusa Pacific out of reach with the first of several 30-point leads the Cougars massaged over the final 9 minutes of the game.
“We played well tonight, and we’re playing with confidence right now,” said Leslie. “We’ve developed some consistency, identity and rotation that we can count on.”
Azusa Pacific will need that good play and confidence as it heads into the teeth of its schedule. The next 5 games feature the GSAC’s upper echelon with visits to Concordia, Biola and The Master’s while Cal Baptist and Westmont come to the Canyon City.
With tonight’s victory, Azusa Pacific has now won a season-high 5 straight and improves to 13-6 overall, 6-3 in the GSAC. San Diego Christian falls to 3-15 overall, 1-7 in the GSAC.
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