AZUSA , Calif. -- Hope International hasn’t won a game in 3 months and hasn’t beaten Azusa Pacific in 22 years. Still, that’s no reason to take the Royals lightly. Not at this time of the season. Not when you’re battling for postseason position and NAIA Tournament life.
So the NAIA’s No. 24-ranked Cougars pinned back their collective ears and rolled past Hope International, beating the Royals for the 33rd consecutive time, 89-55, in a Golden State Athletic Conference game in the Felix Event Center Tuesday evening.
It was the final home game for 3 Cougar seniors, but this was no time to be sentimental. Azusa Pacific is fighting with its own conference mates for a spot in next week’s final NAIA Coaches Top 25 Poll and a likely at-large berth into the 32-team NAIA Tournament. And at the end of tonight, all 3 teams – Azusa Pacific, Fresno Pacific and Westmont – are tied for third place in the GSAC with 2 games to go.
“We’re in the playoffs now and at this point of the season we can’t afford any physical or emotional letdowns of any kind,” said Azusa Pacific Head Coach Justin Leslie. “We just can’t take any chances. We have to get tougher and get better every day. We have to continue to improve and challenge ourselves in the details on a daily basis. If we do that, we have a chance to finish strong and qualify for Kansas City (site of the NAIA Tournament).
So Azusa Pacific fine tuned its game tonight, looking ahead to Thursday’s visit to San Diego Christian and Monday’s monumental trek to Westmont to close out the regular season.
In an appropriate gesture considering the night, senior guard Mike Danielian continued his torrid play, leading a balanced Cougar attack by draining 4 shots from the 3-point line to finish with a game-high 16 points. He has tallied 37 points in the past 3 games after tallying just 31 in the previous 8 contests. Danielian scored 12 second-half points to help Azusa Pacific double an 18-point 48-30 halftime cushion into a monstrous 36-point second-half lead following his final trey of the night.
It came off an Ashton Roberts’ feed, 1 of 23 assists the Cougars registered on their 33 field goals.
“We took care of the ball,” said Leslie, “23 assists to 11 turnovers is great. We passed the ball well and as a result we got quality looks on our shots.”
Junior Marshall Johnson scored 14 points, and in his second game back from a 3-week absence due to injury, junior center Reggie Owens tallied 13 points, all in the first half, on 5-for-6 shooting to go along with a game-high 8 rebounds in just 18 minutes of play.
In fact, no Cougar played more than 20 minutes tonight and all 13 played as Leslie admitted he was keeping an eye on the fact that Azusa Pacific must turn around without much rest and play at San Diego Christian in 48 hours.
“We have some guys who need some minutes and some other guys who need less and need a little bit of break,” said Leslie. “It was a good opportunity to do that.”
Junior forward Caleb Burgess knocked down a long 3-pointer 7 minutes into the game to start a 12-1 Cougar run that gave Azusa Pacific its first double-digit lead at 24-8. The Royals never got closer than a dozen the rest of the game, and when senior guard Zane Meehl knocked down his only jumper of the night, Azusa Pacific had its first 20-point lead at 44-24 with 2 minutes left in the first half.
With the victory Azusa Pacific improves to 19-9 overall, 12-6 in the GSAC. Hope International, which was led by Buai Tut’s 14 points, drops its 23rd straight and falls to 4-24 overall, 0-18 in the GSAC.