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Claiming the Final Frontier

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December 20, 2010
Gary Pine
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AZUSA, Calif. -- Playing for the third time in 4 days, which included a pair of road games in northern Idaho, Azusa Pacific came home tonight to make it a 3-game sweep over the Frontier Conference, saving its best performance for last by thumping the NAIA’s No. 6-ranked and previously undefeated Westminster College, 81-66, tonight in the Felix Event Center.

The Cougars, who returned yesterday afternoon after beating Montana State-Northern and Lewis-Clark State College over the weekend, showed no signs of fatigue against a Westminster team that had won its first 11 games by a hefty average of 15 points per game.

Behind the play of seniors Reggie Owens and Danny Nugent, the Cougars grabbed a quick 8-2 lead just 2 minutes into the game and never trailed throughout the night, holding off several Griffin runs and leading by as much as 17 before settling for a somewhat surprising 15-point victory.

“We played a team whose program is founded on being tougher than its opponent and doing whatever it takes to win,” said Azusa Pacific Head Coach Justin Leslie, “and tonight I thought we were just as tough as them.”

Nugent scored a season-high 24 points, including 15 in the second half, and Owens made 9-of-11 shots on his way 22 points to pace a Cougar offense that whacked Westminster’s defense for a season-high 81 points. In addition, both Nugent and Owens each grabbed a game-high 9 rebounds.

“Westminster is by far the most efficient offensive team in the NAIA,” said Leslie. “They shoot high percentage shots and get to the foul line. Their opponents don’t. It was the challenge for us to be the more efficient team, to do little things, and we did.”

Westminster was looking for some measure of revenge over Azusa Pacific which upset the then No. 4-seeded Griffins in the second round of last year’s NAIA championship tournament in Kansas City, Mo. However, the Cougar defense, which had been sterling over the previous 4 games, continued to shine tonight, frustrating Westminster and its All-American candidate guard Michael Stockton. The Griffins struggled to get into their offense, get the ball to where they wanted it, and to get quality shots. In fact, through the first 13 minutes of the game, Westminster had just 14 points, and a Nugent lay-up gave the Cougars their first of several double-digit leads on the night at 24-14.

“I’ve said it before and I’ll continue to beat that drum,” said Leslie, “if we defend we have a chance to be pretty good. We’re starting to develop our identity, and we have some talented players who can score, but we have to get stops.”

Stockton, the son of former NBA great John Stockton, came into the game shooting nearly 60-percent from the floor while averaging 19.5 points and less than 2 turnovers a game. However, Cougar guards Mike Caffese and Robert Sandoval and their teammates held the shifty Stockton to 10 points on 4-for-12 shooting and induced 5 turnovers.

“I still don’t feel like we did a good job on Stockton,” said Leslie. “He is as good with the ball as anybody we will play this season. He goes into creases and cracks in defenses where there aren’t any. We made some adjustments at halftime and did force him out of his comfort zone in the second half.”

Azusa Pacific led 39-30 at halftime, and a Sandoval steal and subsequent lay-up with 12 minutes left in the game gave the Cougars their biggest lead up to that moment at 57-45. The Griffins, however, whittled the Cougar lead down to 5 at 65-60 following a Jack Orchard trey with 4 minutes remaining, but Westminster, which was forced to work hard at both ends of the court, simply ran out of gas. A Marshall Johnson slashing lay-up ignited a 14-2 Cougar run that allowed Azusa Pacific to run out to a 79-62 advantage and hold off Westminster.

Johnson, who is playing his best basketball of the season, finished with 16 points and 6 rebounds, while Caleb Burgess added 10 points off the bench.

“Westminster ran a zone but they didn’t crash middle,” said Nugent, who is averaging 14.6 points and shooting 63-percent during the Cougars’ current 5-game winning streak. “If we got the ball inside, we’d take our time and try to make solid plays with good looks. This is a good win because it completes a 3-game sweep over the Frontier Conference, and it sends a message nationally that will help us and our conference.”

Westminster, which was led by Orchard’s 24 points, falls to 11-1 on the season.

Azusa Pacific improves to 10-2 overall and will take 7 days off for the Christmas holiday, returning to action Tuesday, Dec. 28, against the University of Calgary.