AZUSA, Calif. – All-American Caleb Gervin led Azusa Pacific on 2 impressive runs, including a 19-4 sprint late in the game, to propel the NAIA’s No. 5-ranked Azusa Pacific to a convincing 85-63 victory over No. 9 Union University of Jackson, Tenn., in the Cougars’ season-opener.
However, the game was played like anything but a 22-point decision. For nearly 20 minutes it was a tight contest in which the verdict hung in the balance. Three huge runs swung the pendulum of the game to each team with Azusa Pacific getting the advantage of the final one. The Cougars blew open the contest in the early going, scoring 21 consecutive points in a 7-minute span to turn a 9-9 tie into a 30-9 advantage with 7 minutes left in the first half. Gervin and junior guard Ryan Dillon combined for 18 of the Cougars’ 21 points (9 for each player) to give what would seemed like an insurmountable 21-point lead.
However, Union, one of the NAIA’s premier programs over the past 7 years, proved it was equal to the task by ending the half with a blistering 22-3 run of its own to go into the locker room at halftime down just 2 points, 33-31.
The second-half was a nail-biter for the first 14 minutes with 4 lead changes and 4 ties. The game turned though on junior forward Brett Michel’s lone field goal of the game, a 3-pointer with 6:05 remaining that gave Azusa Pacific a 54-51 lead that it would not relinquish. The Cougars were in the midst of another run, a 19-4 counter that simply wiped Union out of any remaining gas in its tank. The Bulldogs missed 7 straight shots down the stretch, including 4 consecutive 3-pointers, and committed 4 crucial turnovers as well.
“Obviously we learned the hard way that Union could come back at any time, but in the end that awareness of their ability certainly helped us,” said Cougar coach Bill Odell. “During timeouts we talked about maintaining our focus, particularly at the defensive end, and being consistent with the little things, and that’s what allowed us to pull away at the end.”
Gervin and his backcourt mate Jeff Staniland combined for 49 of the Cougars’ 85 points. Gervin finished with a career-high 28 points, including 6 in the game-deciding run. Staniland tossed in 21 points, including 18 in the second half, thanks in part to a trio of treys. Dillon added 14 points. Freshman Lance Soderberg came off the bench to tally 7 points while collecting a game-high 6 rebounds in his collegiate debut.
“Caleb was obviously the quickest man on the court, and they couldn’t cover him,” said Odell. “That’s why they played all those zones, which was really hard for us, particularly in the first game of the season.”
Gervin canned 9-of-14 shots, including 4 straight down the stretch. He also collected a team-high 5 assists along with Staniland.
“Being a senior, I’m played like it was my last game because it is my last season,” said Gervin. “I just tried to be aggressive through their defense because there were times we didn’t know what kind of defense they were in. Coach didn’t even know.”
Matt Noah’s 20 points off the bench, half of which came during the Bulldogs’ first-half rally, paced Union. Will Harris and Micahel Pallmer each added 10 points.
With the victory Azusa Pacific is now 1-0 on the season. Union suffers its first defeat of the campaign and falls to 3-1.