IRVINE, Calif. – Yes, Concordia is in a funk, but Azusa Pacific is still a scary team.
The unranked Cougars put the exclamation point on a miserable week for the NAIA’s No. 2-ranked Concordia, blitzing the Eagles on their home court for an 80-67 Golden State Athletic Conference victory Saturday night.
And yes, the Eagles were without starting center Ben Smith, but the Cougars were missing their center as well, junior Reggie Owens, who arguably has been the team’s top player the past 6 games (15.7 ppg and 8.3 rpg). His absence didn’t matter, though, as the Cougars found a way to continually attack the basket and then destroy Concordia on the glass to hand the Eagles their worst loss at CU Arena in 5 years.
“I just think we’re growing up,” said Cougar Coach Justin Leslie. “We’re finally starting to realize how good we can be on defense. I knew we would be motivated to play hard tonight, and I knew we would score points. It was a matter of getting stops, and we did.”
Concordia, which has been in a shooting slump in recent games, appeared to have snapped out of the doldrums by scoring the game’s first 8 points, but the Cougars responded with a 20-3 run to take control of the game for the rest of the night. A full-court sprinting Dominique Johnson and a jump-stopping Mike Danielian combined for 35 of the Cougars’ 80 points. Johnson scored 8 of his game-high 23 points in the opening minutes to lead Azusa Pacific back in front of Concordia, and Danielian added 12 points on several drives into the key where he dropped rainbow jumpers over the out-stretched arms of Eagle defenders.
And in Owens’ absence, junior Mason Maynard and freshman Christian Katuala played the best games of their young Cougar careers, combining for 14 points, on 7-for-9 shooting, to go along with 12 rebounds.
“Christian is not lacking any heart or toughness,” said Leslie. “This was a game right up his alley. Concordia is going to line up man for man, push and shove, and play like ‘may the best man win.’ That is Christian’s environment. He played in a great high school program and in a lot of big games. Although he is only 18, these moments aren’t outside of his comfort zone.”
Azusa Pacific torched the nets with a season-best 60-percent shooting, producing just 45 shots in what eventually proved to be a second-half slugfest when the 2 teams combined for 39 of the 61 free throws they attempted in the game. The Cougars led 34-26 at halftime and pushed the advantage into double digits for the final 15 minutes of play.
“One of the biggest reasons for Concordia’s success is how unconventional they are,” said Leslie. “They play defense like they want to score 110 points, and yet they play offense like they want to score 50. They pressure defensively, and on offense is almost where they rest. We understood that. Tonight all we did on offense was pass it around until we got something. When Concordia can’t score it lessens their defensive pressure.”
Concordia made just 18-of-53 shots (.340) and could not counter from the floor, so instead the Eagles relied on the quick first step of junior guard Justin Johnson, who was repeatedly fouled on constant drives to the baskets. The Eagles went 13 minutes with just 2 field goals made, and had it not been for Johnson’s 12-for-14 clip at the free throw line in the second half, the Eagles may have found themselves down by more than the 20 points they were buried in for the final 9 minutes of the game.
A 15-4 Cougar run gave Azusa Pacific its first of several 20-point leads at 60-40 with 8:46 to play, and when Marshall Johnson picked Justin Johnson at midcourt and followed with a slam dunk, the Cougars had their biggest lead of the night at 76-54 with 3:22 left.
Caleb Burgess, one of the GSAC’s premier 3-point shooters, managed just 2 shots from the arc and thus altered his game to finish with 13 points, scoring on several cuts to the basket that resulted in either a bucket or free throws.
Concordia got no closer to the Cougars than to within 8 points on a Karlos Grier trey 4 minutes into the second half. The Cougars answered with a 16-4 run in which Danielian scored 6 points, including 3 off a corner trey that put Azusa Pacific up 56-40 with 9-and-a-half minutes to play.
“Concordia is not playing its best basketball right now,” said Leslie, “but at the same time to come into their place and dominate them proves that we can beat anybody. Unfortunately, we’ve proven that we can lose to anybody as well.”
With the win, Azusa Pacific pushes its winning streak to a season-high 7 in a row and improves to 15-6 on the season, 8-3 in the GSAC, alone in third place. If the Cougars can keep plugging away, they can stay in the picture for a possible 16th straight berth into the NAIA Tournament.
Concordia, which earlier in the week suffered its first loss of the season with a stunning setback at San Diego Christian, falls to 19-2 overall, 9-2 in the GSAC, a game ahead of Azusa Pacific but a game behind first-place Biola University.
In addition, with tonight’s win, Azusa Pacific is a perfect 5-0 on the GSAC road this year, a good sign as they head to The Master’s College Tuesday (Feb. 2) evening to face a Mustang team that beat the Cougars in Azusa back in December and is much stronger now than 2 months ago.