AZUSA, Calif. -- With the veterans under fire and seemingly on their heels, the cavalry was called upon -- those reinforcements of reserves with high energy, fresh legs and a deft shooting touch – at least for tonight. And they did their rescue work in rather quick and efficient fashion, restoring order for the good guys – like any quality cavalry.
Led by its bench, the NAIA’s No. 7-ranked Azusa Pacific went on a 32-8 net-torching run for 8 minutes of the first half to blow open a tight game and lead the Cougars to a 95-82 Golden State Athletic Conference victory over The Master’ College Tuesday evening in the Felix Event Center.
Senior forward Danny Nugent came off the bench to score 16 of his 19 points in the first half and lead an onslaught that continually hammered a run-down set of Mustangs over the last part of the first half, spearheading a turnaround in which the Cougars transformed a 5-point deficit midway through the first half into a whopping 19-point halftime lead.
The Cougars caught fire, making 11-of-14 three-pointers in the first half to nearly account for all of a 20-for-29 (.690) shooting blitz.
“There’s no question that we shot the ball better in the first half than we have all year,” said fourth-year Azusa Pacific Head Coach Justin Leslie. “We’re capable of scoring against anybody in lots of different ways.”
With Azusa Pacific down 28-23, back-up freshman point guard Nolan Abernathy kick-started the Cougars’ game-changing run with a hard drive through traffic for a lay-up. Reserve center De’Angelo Riley tipped in a put-back and when Nugent followed with the first 5 consecutive Cougar 3-point field goals, one of his 4 first-half triples, the Cougars had double-digit lead that it would hold onto for the rest of the night.
However, for the first 10 minutes of the game, The Master’s went toe-to-toe with Azusa Pacific, creating a frantic pace to the game that allowed the Mustangs to move out to a 9-point lead at 22-13 on a Leif Karlberg 3-pointer, the Mustangs fourth 3-pointer in the first 7 minutes of play.
Yet, with one of the NAIA’s best benches at his disposal, Leslie didn’t back off either and rotated players into the game with a hockey-like look to his substitution pattern, allowing the Cougars to keep their foot on the pedal as well and take the game’s pace to a higher level, eventually wearing out a dogged 8-man Mustang rotation that missed 10 of its final 15 shots of the first half.
“We wanted to utilize our depth to force tempo,” said Leslie. “They’ve used a man-to-man defense in the past that has given us problems, so I didn’t want them to get set in what they wanted to do.” Azusa Pacific led 57-38 at halftime, and out-rebounded the Mustangs, 18-7, in the process without allowing TMC to collect an offensive rebound.
To Leslie’s chagrin, Azusa Pacific got sloppy in the second-half, and though the Cougars led by 20-or-more points on several occasions, they also let the Mustangs to cut the deficit to 13 or less at 3 different moments, including 11:27 left in the game when Anthony Cammon buried one of his 5 treys on the night pull the Mustangs to within 11 at 67-56.
“We shot ourselves to sleep on defense,” said Leslie. “We thought it was going to be easy and once we started missing shots we got exposed a little on the defensive side.”
Within a minute, however, Azusa Pacific pushed the lead back to 19 with an 8-0 run in which All-GSAC guard Marshall Johnson scored 4 of his 18 points. He also had a game-high 9 rebounds.
For the second straight game, freshman guard Robert Sandoval, one of those former reserves from the bench who was making his first collegiate start tonight, led Azusa Pacific in scoring with 20 points. His backcourt mate, senior David Stafford added 11 points.
“Sandoval did some nice things out there,” said Leslie. “He got in the paint, put pressure on their defense, and was able to force tempo. He’s continuing to improve, and I’m pleased with his development, but at the same time he has to grow up in a hurry. There were some freshman mistakes out there tonight as well.”
With the loss, The Master’s falls to 8-11 overall, 1-8 in the GSAC.
Azusa Pacific has now won 12 straight, its longest win streak since another 12-gamer in 2007, and improves to 17-2 overall, 8-1 in the GSAC.
“Even though we’re winning games, we have to find a way to improve,” said Leslie. “Tonight, I give us a ‘B-plus’ offensively with the way we played in the second half, and a ‘D’ on defense.”
Azusa Pacific’s next chance to “improve” on its play comes Saturday (Jan. 22) afternoon in a GSAC contest in San Diego Christian College in El Cajon, Calif. Tip-off is set for 4 p.m.