AZUSA, Calif. -- When Azusa Pacific and Westmont last met on the hardwood, some 10 months ago, the Cougars ripped out the Warriors’ collective hearts, rallying from 13 down in the last 7 minutes to steal the game, the victory, and most importantly, the GSAC’s final berth into the NAIA Tournament.
To make matters worse for Westmont, Azusa Pacific parlayed that Santa Barbara steal into a GSAC Tournament championship and an eventual NAIA championship game appearance. All the while the Warriors sat at home pondering what could have been.
Tonight’s stage in Azusa for the first meeting since that fateful game last March was hardly the same size or magnitude, but it was, nonetheless, the first time together for 11 of those players, and the Warriors wanted payback. They got none of it.
Azusa Pacific rolled to a double-digit lead less than 5 minutes into the game and never looked back, steamrolling Westmont for a 76-61 Golden State Athletic Conference victory Saturday night in the Felix Event Center. The victory is the Cougars’ tenth straight over the Warriors, their longest streak in the series’ 40-year history, and for the first time since that first meeting back in 1971, Azusa Pacific has tied the series at 41 games all.
“I feel pretty good about what we did tonight,” said Azusa Pacific Head Coach Justin Leslie. “We took Westmont out of what they wanted to do and frustrated them. We made our statement on defense, and when we defend, we’ll find a way to score.”
All-GSAC wing Marshall Johnson scored 11 of his team-high 13 points in the first half, and senior guard Mike Caffese controlled play at both ends of the court with 8 points, a career-high 12 assists, a team-high 7 rebounds (he was the shortest Cougar on the floor for much of the night), and a game-high 3 steals.
Westmont zeroed in on GSAC Player of the Year candidate Reggie Owens and held the burly center to a season-low 4 points on just 5 shots. However, Azusa Pacific’s defense and depth overwhelmed and wore out the Warriors.
Before any fan could warm their seat, the score was David Stafford 6, Westmont 0. The southpaw senior guard opened the game by converting a conventional 3-point play before draining a long trey from the right wing on the next possession.
It was just a sign of things to come.
As Westmont limited Owens’ touches, the rest of the Cougars went to work, scoring 15 of the game’s first 17 points. The Warriors missed their first 7 shots, committed a turnover, and needed 4 minutes to post their first points of the game, which came on a Preston Branson lay-up down the lane to snap Azusa Pacific’s 11-0 run.
For every attempt Westmont made to get back into the game, Azusa Pacific answered back. When Anthony Lipold knocked down a long 3-pointer to get the Warriors back to within 10, Azusa Pacific came back with a 7-0 run, highlighted by Johnson’s own trey.
When Westmont’s All-GSAC forward Dan Rasp buried a 3-pointer from the top of the key, Johnson answered with another one. Then Caffese, a 25-percent shooter from the arc, got in on the act, nailing a 3-ball of his own to give the Cougars’ a surprising but well-earned 20-point lead at 28-8 just 10 minutes into the game.
“Statistically, I know I don’t have the numbers,” said Caffese, “but Westmont packed it inside to stop Reggie and left me open. When I made the first one I felt like I had the freedom to shoot more.”
Caffese nailed another long ball before the half was out, but it was his play at the defensive end that was just as influential in deflating the Warriors. Westmont made just 10-of-28 shots (.357) in the first half and committed 10 turnovers that led to 16 Azusa Pacific points.
“I felt a lot more energy for this game and got after it on defense right from the get-go,” said Caffese. “When you have a point guard that brings high energy, everyone follows that lead, and I did that better tonight than I have the past 3 games.”
By the time Westmont was afforded a breather the Warriors found themselves down by 19, 47-28, at halftime.
Any chance of a Westmont comeback was washed away in a 9-0 Cougar run to start the second half. On a lob over the top of the defense, Owens made a lay-up to start the half; it was his last field goal of the game. And when Johnson made a lay-up of his own 2 minutes later for his last basket of the game, Azusa Pacific had doubled up on Westmont at 56-28 less than 3 minutes into the second half.
The rest was academic.
“Mike was the little engine that made us go,” said Leslie. “I could have left them in there for 35 minutes and his numbers would have been astonishing. But why? We have a lot of guys that can step up, and I wanted to give them all reps. I’m really pleased with how we got this win.”
Azusa Pacific led by as much as 29 points and kept the 20-point advantage throughout much of the second half until Westmont closed with an 18-6 run for the final 15-point margin of decision.
Owens and senior forward Caleb Burgess came into the game averaging a combined 30 points. They produced a mere 7 tonight on 3-for-12 shooting.
Leslie was not surprised that Azusa Pacific enjoyed a blowout win without significant contributions from Owens and Burgess. He knows he has more weapons.
Like Stafford, who finished with 11 points for his best performance against a GSAC team since … well since that aforementioned game at Westmont last year when he dropped in 14 points.
“I’ve never lost to Westmont, but we knew they were gunning for us in this game, they even said they were” said Stafford. “We jumped on them early and it was just a matter of closing it out.”
Senior forward Danny Nugent came off the bench to score 11 points as well, and fellow reserve De’Angelo Riley added 12 points on 6-for-7 shooting to go along with 4 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 steals and 2 blocked shots.
Azusa Pacific forced Westmont into 20 turnovers and as a result got 18 more shots than the Warriors.
Westmont was paced by freshman forward C.J. Miller, who came off the bench to score a game-high 14 points. The Warriors have their 6-game winning streak snapped and fall to 11-4 overall, 3-3 in the GSAC.
Meanwhile Azusa Pacific pushes its winning streak to 9 straight and improves to 14-2 overall, 5-1 in the GSAC.