AZUSA, Calif. – All-American Dominique Johnson scored a game-high 23 points, and the Cougars clamped down on a pair of All-GSAC players as the NAIA’s No. 15-ranked Azusa Pacific rolled past The Master’s College, 80-56, in the opening round of the 17th Annual GSAC Postseason Tournament Thursday in the Felix Event Center.
The victory propels the Cougars into the tournament semifinals where they’ll meet No. 5 Biola University Saturday (March 6) in a 5:30 p.m. game at Biola.
Tonight’s victory avenges a pair of 3-point losses to The Master’s during the regular season, setbacks in which Azusa Pacific let late leads slip away.
“Someone was kind enough to put about 75 brooms in our locker room before yesterday’s practice,” said Azusa Pacific Head Coach Justin Leslie. “Plus, right before the guys took the floor tonight, I did show them a video of a Master’s student running across the floor, riding a broom and taunting our players when we lost at their place last month. I think our guys got the message.”
Indeed losing, and on top of that getting swept, can be quite the motivator.
Azusa Pacific looked sharp at both ends of the court, from the opening tip to the final buzzer. There would be no let down this time.
The Cougars shot a sizzling 57-percent (29-for-51) from the floor paced by Johnson’s 8-for-10 clip, and then held The Master’s All-GSAC duo – Joey Fuca and Dean Hadley – to just 15 combined points, nearly half of their season average. Azusa Pacific forced 20 Mustang turnovers and frustrated the Master’s so much in the second half that the Mustangs missed 16 of their final 21 shots.
Azusa Pacific went on a 12-1 run midway through the first half to snap an 18-all tie and assume a 30-19 lead. Johnson scored 6 consecutive points in one stretch to put the Mustangs on their collective heels the rest of the night. A Fuca 3-pointer, his first bucket of the night with 39 seconds left in the first half, trimmed Azusa Pacific’s lead to 39-29 at halftime.
In the second half, The Master’s could get no closer than 5 points as the game became more physical. The Cougars answered every Mustang charge with clutch baskets from Reggie Owens and Caleb Burgess.
Azusa Pacific used another 12-1 run in the second half to open up a commanding 16-point lead at 53-37 with 11:42 left in the game.
“Tonight we looked like guys playing in their driveway,” said Leslie. “We were passing, catching, and stepping into shots. We were poised and waited for them to give us things. We did not play as fast as we normally do and yet we scored 80 points, the most they’ve given up this year.”
Burgess, the GSAC’s top 3-point shooter, added 15 points and drained 3-of-5 shots from beyond the arc. Owens came off the bench to contribute 8 points and a team-high 5 rebounds to go along with 2 steals.
In the Cougars’ 2 regular-season losses to The Master’s, Johnson was combined 9-for-21 shooting and committed 7 turnovers. In truth, he disappeared when it mattered most for Azusa Pacific. Not this time. He was everywhere tonight, on breakaway dunks, hitting 3-pointers from the top of key, and picking Mustang pockets.
“To put it bluntly, Dominique stunk the first 2 times we played Masters,” said Leslie. “I knew he was motivated tonight to come out with a good effort, and he really did. He was ready to play on the defensive end and as a result he was able to get some breakaway dunks and some run outs, and with anyone, when you make a few shots, the perimeter shots begin to fall.”
In his final game at the Felix Event Center, 4-year Cougar Mike Danielian scored 10 points in just 15 minutes, dropping a pair of key shots in the paint that seemingly broke the Mustangs’ collective spirits.
The Master’s has its season come to an end at 18-13. Azusa Pacific, now 22-9, preps for Biola, a 65-51 winner over California Baptist University tonight. Like The Master’s, Biola swept the season series from Azusa Pacific. Interestingly, though, the last time Biola swept a season-series from Azusa Pacific, back in 2002, the Cougars came back to beat Biola in the GSAC Tournament., though that game was in Azusa while Saturday’s tilt will be on the Eagles’ court.
Tickets for the Saturday's semifinal game are available for purchase online by visiting http://athletics.biola.edu/tickets.
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