AZUSA, Calif. -- Fast-and-furious gave way to deliberate-and-methodical, and another potential “uh-oh” start to conference play turned into a “wow” performance as Azusa Pacific blew away Fresno Pacific, 87-69, in both team’s Golden State Athletic Conference opener in the Felix Event Center Tuesday evening.
Owens scored 13 of his game-high 18 points in the second half, and Riley came off the bench to register the best game of his brief Cougar career, tallying 15 points and 10 rebounds in just 17 minutes of play for his first double-double.
The game looked anything but like a blowout in the first half. Six tied scores and 6 lead changes finished off in a 42-40 Fresno Pacific lead at halftime. The Sunbirds took advantage of some shoddy shot selection by Azusa Pacific and capitalized on their own deft shooting from the 3-point arc to cause concern that for the fourth time in 5 years the Cougars would drop their GSAC opener.
“We were 10-of-14 in the first half shooting 2-point shots, 3-of-14 from the arc,” said Azusa Pacific Head Coach Justin Leslie. “It’s a simple recipe. I told the guys at halftime to quit shooting threes, show some patience, and pound the ball inside.”
They got the message.
The Cougars scored the first 6 points of the second half off a pair of Owens’ lay-ups and a David Stafford lay-up, assuming a 44-40 lead less than 90 seconds into the second half. Azusa Pacific never trailed again.
“You can’t attack Fresno’s zone from the point,” added Leslie, “you have to reverse the ball and swing the zone to let the inside touches develop. When we scored those first 6 points you could see the guys say ‘oh, this works.’”
And not that Fresno Pacific rolled over – the Sunbirds were still within 6 with just over 10 minutes left in the game – but it was clear the Cougars were now in control of play, making the Sunbirds chase them all over the floor on defense as the Cougar guards and wings moved the ball, waiting for a seam to open into the paint.
A Marshall Johnson jumper for 2 of his 12 points spurred an Azusa Pacific run in which the Cougars went into overdrive. Led by Riley, the Cougars dominated at both ends of the court for the next 7 minutes of play, going on a 25-9 run capped by a pair of Riley free throws that put the Cougars up 83-61 with 3 minutes left in the game.
“Our depth was a key,” said Leslie. “Look at their second half numbers. The physical toll caught up with Fresno, but our defense got better as the game wore on.”
Azusa Pacific, which shot at a 45-percent (13-for-29) clip in the first half, torched the nets for a 66-percent (21-for-32) pace in the second half. Riley and Owens were a combined 14-for-17 on the night.
“I showed up kind of late, but I was there in the second half,” said Riley, who added 2 blocked shots, an assist and a steal to his game ledger. “I had to find my spot on the floor, and when I did I got all my points off rebounds and second chance shots. That’s my roll, and I have to do this every game.”
“We didn’t run a single play for De’Angelo but he was a difference-maker,” said Leslie.
“Caffese has 4 years of seeing this league and understanding all the different things that happen within it and knowing what’s on the line,” said Leslie. “He read the game, let it come to him, and then picked Fresno apart.”
Azusa Pacific, which had not done well to-date on the glass, out-rebounded Fresno Pacific, the GSAC’s top offensive rebounding team, 43-29
“Our seniors played like veterans,” said Leslie. “They bought into what we wanted in the second half and showed poise. This was a game we had to win, and our seniors led the way.”
Fresno Pacific, which was the last GSAC team to beat Azusa Pacific (the Cougars have won 8 straight over conference foes), was led by Matt Christman’s 16 points. The junior guard, who came into the game shooting 28-percent from the 3-point arc, drained 5 treys on just 8 attempts tonight.
With the victory Azusa Pacific improves to 5-1 overall, 1-0 in the GSAC. Fresno Pacific falls to 5-3 overall, 0-1 in the GSAC.
The Cougars head to defending GSAC champion Concordia University Saturday (Dec. 4) for a key early-season conference game. Tip-off is set for 7:30 p.m.