AZUSA, Calif. -- Azusa Pacific sat 72 hours on Saturday’s gut-wrenching loss at Concordia, and while the Cougars would have gladly turned around to play Concordia again tonight, they settled instead for their longtime rival and proved to themselves, and anyone else who was watching, that they rebound quite nicely – both literally and figuratively.
Azusa Pacific’s swarming defense and relentless attack on the glass produced an easier-than-expected 71-57 Golden State Athletic Conference victory over the NAIA’s No. 16-ranked Biola University Tuesday evening before a crowd of 2,412 in the Felix Event Center.
The Cougars, who lost to No. 6 Concordia on a put-back with .0.8 second left, showed no ill effects of that verdict, leading wire-to-wire against Biola, which included a double-digit advantage that they held for the final 23 minutes of the game.
“We wanted to play Concordia now but we have to wait until January,” said Azusa Pacific Head Coach Justin Leslie. “I told the guys we can keep the pressure on Concordia by handling our next game and then the next one and the next one and so on. If Concordia slips up, we’ll be right there with them and they’ll be coming back to our place.”
Though saddled the entire game with foul trouble, Cougar center Reggie Owens was a monster on the court – when he was there – tallying 15 points and 13 rebounds in just 16 minutes of play, and fellow senior Mike Caffese spearheaded a Cougar defense that held Biola to just 36-percent (21-for-58) shooting, which included a combined 8-for-30 (.267) clip by Eagle guards Dwight Gordon and Curtis Eatmon.
In addition, Azusa Pacific dismantled the GSAC’s top-rebounding team, out-rebounding Biola by 13, which translated into a 14-2 benefit in second-chance points.
“Reggie Owens ate them alive,” said Leslie. “Biola was not going to let him get the ball on the post, so I told him to treat every shot that goes up as a pass to him off the glass, and he got 7 offensive boards. He is really imposing his will right now.”
A Caffese lay-up followed by a Danny Nugent jumper and subsequent trey to open the game gave Azusa Pacific a 7-0 lead 3 minutes into play, forcing the previously undefeated Eagles into a chase mode out of which they could never escape the rest of the night.
A Marshall Johnson lay-up midway through the opening half gave the Cougars their first 10-point lead at 21-11. Three minutes later Johnson nailed his only 3-pointer of the night to cap a 13-4 Cougar run and put Azusa Pacific up 29-15.
Though the Eagles cut the deficit to an even 10 at 39-29 by halftime, Biola never threatened again after getting snowed under by a 16-3 Cougar avalanche to start the second half, highlighted by Caleb Burgess’ 5 consecutive points that resulted in a 55-32 Azusa Pacific lead.
Biola tried to play its way back into the game, but at every turn Eagle ball-handlers were met by a Cougar defender in their face, and if the Eagles found a lapse in the Cougars’ high-pressure defense it was just for a moment as Azusa Pacific’s help- and weak-side defense was outstanding the entire night. “Despite our pressure, Biola did a good job, turning the ball over only 11 times,” said Leslie, “but they took a lot of shots that were just as good as turnovers. We sped them up and got them out of their comfort zone.”
At times, Leslie had both Caffese and his back-up, freshman Robert Sandoval, on the court at the same time, and the duo wreaked havoc on Biola’s offensive intentions. The pair teamed for 17 points, 6 assists and collected 4 of the Cougars’ 5 steals on the night.
Biola got to within a dozen with just over 10 minutes remaining but within 30 seconds the Cougars were back up by 18 at 61-43 after another Nugent 3-pointer and Caffese converted a conventional 3-point play.
“We can be pretty good when we decide to be, but we still have a long way to go,” said Leslie. “The consistency is not there yet, but we played and defended pretty well tonight.”
Biola made one last push and cut the Cougar lead to 11 at 61-50 on an Eatmon trey with 7 minutes left but no sooner had the Eagles thought they had a fighting chance than it disappeared in an 8-0 run in which Owens rebounded, Sandoval stole, and Johnson dunked – with authority, to put the Cougars back up at 69-50 with 5 minutes to play.
“Our defensive intensity was there at the start, and I think it was a bit of shock to them,” said Sandoval, who admitted that despite playing in CIF title games found himself nervous at the start. “The intensity of tonight’s game was a new level for me, but it was a lot of fun.”
Nugent finished with 12 points on 5-for-7 shooting, while Johnson added 11.
For Johnson, a third-year Cougar, it’s his first win at home over Biola after the Eagles registered 18- and 16-point victories in their past 2 visits to the Felix Event Center.
“Since I’ve been here we’ve got creamed by Biola here at home,” said Johnson, “and we hate losing at home. Tonight, Coach had us fronting the post, staying one pass away, all the basic defensive things you’re supposed to do. It wasn’t a special game plan, but it was fun to take the ball from them, score at the other end, come back down and do it all over again.”
Eatmon led Biola with 17 points. David Cline came off the bench to 11 points on 4-for-5 shooting.
With the victory Azusa Pacific improves to 6-2 overall, 2-1 in the GSAC. Biola falls to 7-1 overall, 2-1 in the GSAC as well.