FRESNO, Calif. -- Seniors Reggie Owens and David Stafford accounted for every point of an 11-2 Cougar run to start the second half as the NAIA’s No. 5-ranked Azusa Pacific overcame a sluggish first half to beat Fresno Pacific, 77-69, in a Golden State Athletic Conference game at the Special Events Center Tuesday night.
Azusa Pacific, which didn’t make a field goal the final 5 minutes of the first half and thus trailed 27-23 at the break, turned to its veteran leadership to spark the GSAC’s top offensive squad, continually getting the ball in the post to Owens while Stafford worked the perimeter on kick-outs.
The end result was the Cougars’ 14th consecutive win on the season, their longest winning streak since a 19-gamer in 2004.
Owens, a GSAC Player of the Year candidate who didn’t take a shot in the first half, scored 17 of his 18 points in the second half, including 8 in the first 5 minutes, and Stafford accounted for 7 consecutive points in the same span, first with one of his three 3-pointers on the night, then with a lay-up 25 seconds later and finally with a steal that led to another Owens lay-up.
Stafford scored a season-high 15 points on 5-for-7 shooting to go along with a season-high 6 rebounds, including 4 at the offensive end.
That was Staff’s best game of his career,” said Azusa Pacific Head Coach Justin Leslie. “He made the tough plays when we needed it. It was a physically dominating performance by him tonight at both ends of the court, knocking people over and forcing his man into tough shots.”
The Owens-Stafford play was critical in a 22-4 Cougar run that allowed Azusa Pacific to move out 45-31 lead and change the complexion of the game. Until that point, Fresno Pacific certainly had visions of an upset.
The Sunbirds overcame an Azusa Pacific 11-2 start of the game, relying on Jordan Wild and Jerante Morgan to engineer a 12-2 run of their own, highlighted by Wild’s first-half ending dunk that gave FPU a 4-point lead at the break.
Azusa Pacific was sloppy in its play, committing 14 first-half turnovers while missing 12-of-20 shots.
However, the whole pattern of play changed after halftime, and freshman guard Robert Sandoval, returning home for the first time since earning CIF Player of the Year honors at nearby Clovis East High last year, played just as significant of a role as Owens and Stafford. Unnerved by more than 50 family members and friends in attendance, Sandoval engineered an efficient Cougar offense, continually finding Owens and other teammates for easy baskets on the break and in the half court offense. He collected 9 of his career-high 12 assists in the second half.
“Robert gets the game ball,” said Leslie. “He did a great job of wearing out their point guard and then made fabulous plays at our offensive end, giving our guys the ball in perfect spots for easy lay-ups.”
After picking up 4 assists in the first 5 minutes of the second half, Sandoval drained his only trey of the night to give the Cougars their first double-digit lead at 41-31 with 14:50 left in the game.
“Robert struggled against Fresno the first time because they’re the only team in the conference that will play 40 minutes of zone defense,” added Leslie. “At halftime we made some adjustments with our passing angles, and he got more comfortable as the game wore on.”
Fresno Pacific got no closer than to within 8 points the rest of the way, and even then it was Sandoval to the rescue again with a jumper that pushed the Cougar lead to 49-39 with 8 minutes left to play.
Junior guard Marshall Johnson was a steady force across both halves, carrying the Cougars in the opening frame and eventually finishing with a season-high 20 points
The Cougars committed just 4 second-half turnovers, knocked down 19-of-33 shots, and for the second straight game, played good second-half defense.
“Fresno played hard, but we defended very well,” said Leslie. “We contested shots all night.”
With the loss Fresno Pacific falls to 12-8 overall, 5-6 in the GSAC. Azusa Pacific improves to 19-2 overall, 10-1 in the GSAC.
All eyes now turn toward Friday (Jan. 28) when the Cougars host No. 2-ranked Concordia at 7:30 p.m. in a battle for first place in the GSAC. The Eagles are 19-2 overall, 11-0 in the GSAC, having defeated Azusa Pacific, 83-82, on a buzzer-beating tip-in back on Dec. 4 in Irvine to assume the GSAC lead.