AZUSA, Calif. -- On a night the university said “good-bye” to 8 seniors, the fans said “hello and welcome back” to a team.
The NAIA’s No. 6-ranked Azusa Pacific snapped out of a 3-game funk with a convincing 91-63 Golden State Athletic Conference victory over San Diego Christian College Saturday night in the Felix Event Center.
A dozen different Cougars scored, led by All-GSAC guard Marshall Johnson who dropped in 18 points. Freshman guard Robert Sandoval came off the bench to tally 12 points, including 10 in the first half when he guided the Cougars to a comfortable 44-31 advantage.
An easy feeling of comfort has eluded the Cougars the past 10 days. A pair of overtime victories against teams in the bottom quarter of the GSAC standing and then a loss to the ninth-placed team had the Cougars reeling and their fans wondering what had happened to their national powerhouse squad.
However, a tightened 8-man rotation employed by Azusa Pacific Head Coach Justin Leslie, and the return of a healthy Mike Caffese at the point, got the Cougars into a tempo of play that had been lacking since a 29-point victory at Westmont College on Feb. 12.
By the end of tonight’s game, the Cougars of 2 weeks ago were back.
“Our swagger was back tonight,” said Leslie. “We were playing with a confidence that we needed to play with. I was pleased with where we were mentally in playing basketball.”
Azusa Pacific scored 12 of the game’s first 16 points to put the Hawks on their heels. Midway through the first half, the Cougars fashioned 9-0 run, capped by a Sandoval 3-pointer to assume a 35-21 lead with 5 minutes left in the half.
“We had an emphasis on forcing tempo, and that allowed us more freedom in how we played tonight,” said Leslie. “We didn’t need another grind-it-out game in the 60s. That’s not how we played all year.”
And the Cougars weren’t about to surrender this cushion, despite shooting just 41-percent (32-for-78) from the floor. In the second half they scored 47 points despite making just 16-of-43 shots (.372). However, they were efficient in their play, padding their GSAC-leading assist-to-turnover ratio with an amazing 24 assists against just 6 turnovers. In addition, they knocked down 15 3-pointers, led by Caleb Burgess
One of the 8 seniors playing his final regular-season game in the Felix Event Center, Burgess was 4-for-6 from the arc, which included a 4-point play, and finished with 13 points. Fellow senior Reggie Owens added 10 points, and David Stafford, playing in his 136th game at Azusa Pacific, finished with 8 points and 4 rebounds.
However, it was Caffese who made things click for the Cougars, and at both ends of the court. He finished with 5 points to go along with 5 rebounds, and his game-highs of 6 assists and 3 steals without a turnover in 20 minutes of play.
“Mike makes the guys around him much better,” said Leslie. “While we didn’t shoot well, the quality of our shots were fantastic, and that’s because Mike the ball to the guys in the right spot.”
Azusa Pacific led by as much as 31 at 81-50 following a James Staniland 3-pointer with just under 8 minutes left in the game.
Jason Starr tossed in 18 points to lead San Diego Christian, which has its season come to an end at 8-22 overall, 2-18 in the GSAC.
Meanwhile, Azusa Pacific improves to 26-4 overall, and finishes second in the GSAC at 17-3. The Cougars now turn their attention to the GSAC Postseason Tournament where they will host California Baptist University in a first-round game Thursday (March 3) at 7:30 p.m. in the Felix Event Center.