AZUSA, Calif. -- His teammates call him "Danny Buckets" because of his proficiency to knock down shots, and the fact that he leads the Golden State Athletic Conference in 3-point shooting confirms the moniker. And while he indeed made many "buckets" tonight, 6 to be exact, he'll be remembered more for just one -- the last one, the difference-maker.
Senior Danny Nugent nailed a trey from the left corner with 54 seconds left in overtime to propel the NAIA’s No. 5-ranked Azusa Pacific to a harder-than-expected 83-77 conference victory over Vanguard University Thursday evening in the Felix Event Center.
Nugent’s bomb, his second of the night, gave the Cougars an insurmountable lead, but until that moment, Vanguard has proven to be a constant thorn in the Cougars’ side, and in fact was in position to pull off the biggest upset in conference play this season.
With less than 90 seconds left in regulation, the Lions held a 3-point lead at 70-67 but Azusa Pacific got back-to-back stops on defense, and Marshall Johnson scored the next 3 points, first draining a 12-foot banker from the left side, and then converting the first of 2 free throws with 8.6 seconds left to knot the game at 70-70. His second free throw attempt, however, rattled out of the basket, and though Vanguard the Lions turned the ball over as time ran out.
Senior guard David Stafford opened the extra frame with a his second trey of the game to give the Cougars a lead they would never relinquish, but it was Nugent’s bomb off a kick-out from center Reggie Owens that put the Cougars up 80-76 and forced Vanguard into a desperation mode.
“When I got the ball there was a guy closing out on me and I thought I was open enought to take the shot,” said Nugent, “but when I realized how short he was, I ignored him and focused on the shot.”
Vanguard’s Chris Pynch then missed 1 of 2 free throws with 38 seconds left, and when freshman guard Robert Sandoval knocked down a pair of free throws at the other end with 25 seconds remaining, the Cougars had sealed their seventh straight win over Vanguard and their 25th in the past 27 meetings.
“We were trying to get the ball into Reggie,” said Azusa Pacific Head Coach Justin Leslie, “he had missed only 1 shot in the game. However, they collapsed on him and he made the fine of Danny in the corner.”
Azusa Pacific got stops on 8 of Vanguard’s final 12 possessions of the game to rally for the victory, but until then the Lions had their way with Azusa Pacific at the offensive end. At one point, they made 12-of-23 three-point shots, including back-to-back treys from Christopher Raybon and Cameron Khoury to assume a 64-63 lead with 5 minutes left in regulation, and looked like anything other than a team that had lost 19-of-25 games this season. In fact, the Lions were far from the same team that had lost to Azusa Pacific by 22 points at home last month.
“I told the guys before the game that Vanguard had turned a corner since we last saw them and that they were playing very well,” said Leslie, “but they didn’t hear the message and were uncharacteristically soft tonight.”
The Lions used a 12-4 run midway through the first half to take a 27-23 lead following an Alex Chapman 3-pointer. Vanguard held the lead into halftime, maintaining a 32-30 advantage.
Azusa Pacific scored 7 of the first 9 points of the second half to re-take the lead at 37-34 following a Nugent lay-up. The Cougars pushed the cushion to as much as 5 before Vanguard answered with a 10-2 run highlighted by a Drew Burns trey to put the Lions back on top at 51-48. From there Vanguard would not fold nor go away.
“We did not defend the 3-point line tonight,” said Leslie. “Vanguard is capable of knocking down the 3 but we made them look a lot better by our lack of attention to detail. There’s just no excuse for our lack of effort tonight.”
Despite his team’s play, Leslie still picked up his 100th career coaching win, and it took just 134 games to reach the first century figure.
Nugent and Owens finished with game-highs of 17 points each. Owens added a hefty 12 rebounds to his ledger, giving him 9 double-doubles on the season. Sandoval chipped in 12 points, including 4 in overtime. He converted a running-jumper in the key to put Azusa Pacific up 77-74 with 1:30 left in the game.
Senior Caleb Burgess was the only Cougar with a hot hand in the first half, scoring all 11 of his points before halftime while knocking down 3-of-4 from beyond the arc.
Vanguard, which falls to 6-20 overall, 4-14 in the GSAC, was paced by Raybon’s 15 points.
Azusa Pacific has now won 5 straight and taken 19 of its past 20 games. The Cougars improve to 24-3 overall, 15-2 in GSAC play. They return to the road to visit Hope International University in a GSAC game Saturday at 7:30 p.m. in Fullerton, Calif.