AZUSA, Calif. -- The NAIA’s No. 25-ranked Fresno Pacific made 4 consecutive shots, including a trio of 3-pointers, in a 90-second span to spoil No. 16 Azusa Pacific’s bid for an amazing comeback, holding on for an 85-75 Golden State Athletic Conference victory Tuesday evening in the Felix Event Center.
Senior Alex Davenport scored 14 of his game-high 21 points in the second half, and All-American James Lewis added 19 to lead the Sunbirds to their seventh straight victory and avenge last month’s gut-wrenching loss in Fresno in which the Cougars made 2 technical free throws with 0.9 second left to beat FPU which had called a timeout when it had none remaining.
Now, instead, it’s the Cougars and their young head coach, Justin Leslie, who are frustrated. A constant series of injuries and inexplicable miscues have wreaked season-long havoc on the Cougar starting line-up. For the third straight game, Leslie was forced to use a different starting line-up because junior forward Caleb Burgess, who was averaging 16 points and 5 rebounds over the past 6 games, was benched with heart palpitations discovered less than 3 hours before tonight’s tip-off.
From the start Burgess’ firepower was noticeably absent when Fresno Pacific opened the game with a 16-0 run. The Cougars didn’t score their first points until 5 minutes into play when freshman Christian Katuala made a pair of free throws. It took them nearly 6 minutes and 10 shots just to make 1 field goal.
With Lewis and All-GSAC forward Todd Brown knocking down jumpers, Fresno Pacific led by as much as 19 points in the first half at 34-15 with 7 minutes before halftime.
Though their collective knees buckled, the Cougars didn’t collapse. Senior guard Mike Danielian came off the bench to drain 4 shots from the 3-point line, and Mike Caffese buried a career-high 3 three-point field goals as Azusa Pacific rallied back into the game, trimming a 13-point halftime deficit down to 3 when Zane Meehl converted 2 free throws to cut the FPU lead to 61-58 with 9:14 left to play.
That’s when Fresno Pacific went on aforementioned 90-second blitz, an 11-2 run in which Brown, Lewis and Jordon Wild all drained 3-pointers to push the Sunbird lead back to 12 at 72-60.
With Burgess, their top perimeter shooter (46-percent from the arc) on the bench, the Cougars had no firepower left as Fresno Pacific held on for just its fifth win in 42 trips to the Canyon City.
Leslie has had his desired starting line-up of Burgess, Johnson, Johnson, Caffese and Reggie Owens for just 10 games this season, and not once since Dec. 17. Owens has missed 8 of the Cougars’ 26 games, including the last 6 with a knee injury. Caffese, one of the GSAC’s top point guards last year, missed 9 mid-season games with a pulled hamstring muscle. Even Katuala, one of the Cougars’ premier reserves, missed 6 games with a knee injury. Dominique Johnson is the only Cougar to start all 26 games this year. And now Burgess, who had started the previous 25 games, is out and no one is sure for how long.
Owens, a burly 6-foot-5, 265-pound center, is expected to return in the coming games, and if Burgess’ leave is short-termed, Azusa Pacific could have its desired line-up back in place prior to the GSAC Tournament.
The Cougars need that line-up soon. Tonight’s loss handed Fresno Pacific sole possession of third-place in the GSAC, while Azusa Pacific falls back into a tie for fourth place, just a half game ahead of sixth place. With the win, the Sunbirds improve to 21-5 overall, 11-5 in the GSAC. The Cougars are 17-9 overall, 10-6 in the GSAC.