AZUSA, Calif, -- If this Azusa Pacific team has learned one thing about itself, it’s that it doesn’t handle success very well. For instance, the Cougars opened the season ranked No. 1 in the NAIA, and justifiably so, until they dropped their season-opener, at home and against NCAA Division III Claremont-Mudd.
And then there tonight’s exhibit. Azusa Pacific came in tonight’s contest against the University of Fraser Valley playing its best basketball of the season, winners of 6 straight including 5 by double-digits. Along the way the Cougars beat previously unbeaten and nationally-ranked Biola and Westminster. Two nights ago they pushed University of Calgary out of the gym with a 23-point victory. With one game left before they return to GSAC play in earnest, the Cougars seemed set for another blowout win.
Azusa Pacific lacked energy, focus and a deft shooting touch, but unlike the Claremont-Mudd game, in which the effort put forth was eerily similar to tonight’s performance, the Cougars muscled out a win, ugly in style and emotionally frustrating, but a win nonetheless, beating Fraser Valley, 79-66.
“It’s a win,” Azusa Pacific Head Coach Justin Leslie simply put. “The problem began with our veteran starters with their lack of effort and focus. Then we had guys come off the bench who only compounded the mistakes. The only silver lining I can find in this one is that this effort and this lesson didn’t happen in a GSAC game.”
Senior center Reggie Owen scored 17 of his game-high 21 points in the second half, and senior guard David Stafford drained a pair of long treys from the right wing midway through the second half to give the Cougars some separation and put the road weary Cascades, who were playing their third GSAC team in as many days, into a chase mode over the final 9 minutes of the game.
Fraser Valley, which lost by 2 at Hope International and was manhandled by Biola last night, looked fresh, quick and sharp to open the game, running circles around an uninterested set of Cougars, who clanked shots and continually fumbled the ball. So frustrated was Leslie that he played 12 different Cougars in the first 7 minutes of the game, desperately looking for a spark somewhere from his deep bench, but none was offered.
“I was trying to find something that would work,” said Leslie. “I wasn’t putting our starters back in for a long time after they way they played.”
The undersized and out-manned Cascades, who were missing 3 of their players, scored 8 of the game’s first 10 points, and continually beat the Cougars at their own game, out-rebounding Azusa Pacific, 20-16, which produced a 10-4 advantage in second-chance points. They led for nearly 18 minutes of the first half, and only an 11-4 run over the final 4 minutes allowed Azusa Pacific to meander into the locker room with an unearned 33-32 halftime lead.
Fraser Valley never looked tired the entire night and continually knocked down 3s early in the game, midway through the game, and at the end. However, a 9-0 Cougar run in which Owens scored 6 straight points gave Azusa Pacific a 44-36 lead early in the second half. UFV’s Sam Freeman answered with a trey, and the Cascades kept it close until Stafford squared up for a long trey that hit nothing but net with 12 minutes to play. Two minutes later, he drained another from the same spot to give Azusa Pacific a 57-46 advantage.
Stafford’s bombs opened the interior for Owens and Danny Nugent, and though they got very few uncontested shots, they nonetheless produced repeated fouls. The pair combined to make 21-of-22 free throws, including 15-of-16 in the second half.
“We got Reggie touches in the second half, and that was probably the only main difference in our play,” added Leslie. “However, you take Staff’s 2 three-pointers out of the game and it’s a different game down to the end.”
Azusa Pacific turned around its play on the glass as well, out-rebounding Fraser Valley, 25-13, in the second half.
Nugent finished with 17 points, including 11 in the first half, and Marshall Johnson added 18 points to go along with a team-high 5 rebounds.
Both teams shot an identical and paltry 21-for-56 (.375) from the floor, and while the Cascades made 3 more treys than the Cougars, it was Azusa Pacific’s 30-for-33 clip at the free throw line that proved to be the difference in the score.
With the victory, Azusa Pacific heads back into conference play having won 9 of 10 nonconference games, its best showing since winning all 10 nonconference games 4 years ago in 2007.
The Cougars improve to 12-2 overall. They visit California Baptist University next Tuesday (Jan. 4) in a 7:30 p.m. game in Riverside.