FULLERTON, Calif. -- The best genealogy records do not indicate a relation between Azusa Pacific’s Danny Nugent and rock & roll legend Ted Nugent. However, Ted’s signature song “Cat Scratch Fever” best describes Danny and his teammates, because the recent play of the NAIA’s No. 5-ranked Azusa Pacific seems to be rather ill.
For the second straight game, a sub-.500 team took Azusa Pacific into overtime, and the Cougars had to scratch for everything they could get. In the end, another Danny Nugent 3-pointer proved to be the game-changer as the Cougars rallied to beat Hope International and avoid a monumental upset by taking a 63-55 verdict Saturday evening in the Darling Pavilion.
Nugent who made a big-time 3-pointer with 54 seconds left in overtime in Thursday’s win over Vanguard, came through in the clutch again tonight, draining another trey with 2:55 left in the game to give Azusa Pacific a 56-53 lead. Mike Caffese followed with a short jumper for the Cougars’ only 2 field goals in OT, but the back-to-back made shots gave Azusa Pacific a 5-point advantage, its largest lead of the night.
In fact, the Cougars made 5 of their final 7 shots, but until then, they may have been the worst-shooting college basketball team in the nation on this day. Through 38 minutes of play, Azusa Pacific was shooting a paltry 28-percent from the floor, missing 38-of-53 shots, including 18-of-22 from the 3-point line.
“In my 15 years with Azusa Pacific basketball, I don’t recall us ever shooting as bad as we did tonight,” said Cougar Head Coach Justin Leslie. “It’s funny, we’ve always shot well at Hope, but tonight we could not make shots.”
The Cougars were so bad from the floor that only one player shot 50-percent, and that was Caffese, whose aforementioned jumper was the only basket he made all night among the 2 shots he took. The Cougars missed their first 5 shots and went more than 5 minutes before they made their first basket, which in hindsight, ironically came off a David Stafford lay-up.
Stafford scored a team-high 13 points, 8 of which came in the final 5 minutes of regulation and in overtime. He knocked down his only 3-pointer of the night with 52 seconds left in regulation to tie the game at 50-all. After the Royals went ahead on a Kris Rosales jumper with 17 seconds left, Stafford came through again, fighting through 2 Royals for an offensive rebound that he put back with 7 seconds left to tie the game and force overtime.
“David was unbelievable down the stretch tonight, at both ends of the floor” said Leslie. “At the 3-minute mark he imposed his will on the game.
Stafford collected 4 of his career-high 8 rebounds and picked up both of his steals in the last 8 minutes of play.
Hope International, which hasn’t beaten Azusa Pacific since 1988 and entered the night having lost 27 straight to the Cougars, appeared to be headed toward one of its biggest victories in program history. The Royals scored 12 of the game’s first 13 points, held a 6-point lead at halftime at 27-21, and didn’t surrender the lead until 14 minutes left in the game when a Robert Sandoval jumper put Azusa Pacific up 32-31.
A Nugent 3-point play put Azusa Pacific up by 3, a cushion the Cougars maintained for about 4 minutes until Hope regained the lead with a 6-0 run. A pair of Jeremy Kilgore free throws pushed the Royal lead to 5 at 50-45 with just under 2 minutes to play. Reggie Owens, though, put back his own miss and Stafford followed with his game-tying trey.
“You have to give Hope credit,” added Leslie, “they did not make it easy for us. They had a good game plan, and took away all our easy shots. We got good looks from the perimeter, but we couldn’t knock them down. They had us in a difficult spot, but we had a few plays up our sleeve.”
Nugent was the only other Cougar in double digits, finishing with 12 points and 8 rebounds. Owens had 9 points and a game-high 9 rebounds.
“Reggie played with 3 bodies on him all night, but he was big,” said Leslie. “Whereever he went on offense, 2 or 3 people followed him. He played through a lot but he was getting rebounds and working.”
The Cougars’ winning streak moves to 6 in a row, but they had to scratch out the past 2 wins.
“I’m not pleased with our mental preparation for these past 2 games,” said Leslie. “However, our focus and will to finish them has been very solid. It should not have come to this, but when we were down, we dug in our heels and got stops.”
The Cougars are now 3-0 in overtime games this year, and tonight’s 63 points are their lowest winning score since beating Columbia College, 61-47, in the opening round of the 2008 NAIA Tournament.
Azusa Pacific improves to 25-3 overall, 16-2 in GSAC play, a game behind front-runner Concordia University, which lost at Biola University tonight, 73-71. Hope International, which was paced by Rosales’ game-high 20 points, falls to 13-15 overall, 4-15 in the GSAC.