FRESNO, Calif. –- When everything outside was cold, including the Cougars’ perimeter shooting, senior guard Jeff Staniland took the game inside, to the key and among the big men, and his work down low transformed the play of the NAIA’s No. 7-ranked Azusa Pacific, resulting in the Cougars’ 23rd straight victory over a Fresno Pacific, this one being a 71-65 verdict.
The Cougars were as chilly as the evening air to start the game, missing 20 of their first 26 shots, including numerous lay-ups and putbacks. As a result, they found themselves down 28-15 with just under 5 minutes left in the first half. It got so bad that Cougar coach Bill Odell substituted 6-foot-3 Nate Pratt in place of postmen Ladrick Simon and Danny Rosales, who were a combined 4-for-12 in the first half.
Azusa Pacific abandoned its perimeter game and Staniland begin to drive the key, which resulted in 7 points, a trio of which came on a conventional 3-point play and the other 4 at the charity stripe. The Cougars closed the half on a 15-5 run to pull to within 3 at 33-30 by halftime.
The Sunbirds, who were seeking their first win over Azusa Pacific since 1992, kept the Cougars at bay for the first 5 minutes of the second half until Caleb Gervin’s second of a career-high 4 3-pointers locked the game up at 41 apiece. Simon then began to heat up, stealing a Sunbird pass at the top of the key which he followed with a breakaway lay-up to give the Cougars their first lead of the game at 43-41 with 13:24 to play. The 2 teams traded leads 3 more times before a Ryan Dillon trey from the left wing put the Cougars up for good at 52-50 with 7:21 remaining in the game.
“We both played so poorly tonight,” said Odell, “but we got some things done on defense that allowed us to get going. I’ve never seen Caleb play that poor, and Fresno Pacific is much better than what we saw in this game. Jeff did some things inside that eventually opened up our game, particularly for Brett and Caleb.”
Gervin finished with a game-high 22 points, his fifth 20-point outing in the past 6 games, 15 of which came in the second half. Simon tallied 19 points and 9 rebounds. Staniland registered 10 points, 7 below his season average, but his 7 first-half points kick-started a sluggish Cougar offense.
Fresno Pacific, which was paced by Mark Fowler’s 15 points, used its height advantage to out-rebound the Cougars 42-31 and control the inside game. The Sunbirds were enjoying their best shot at ending an 11-year drought versus Azusa Pacific, until the Cougars’ perimeter game returned.
Back-to-back 3-pointers by Michel and Gervin gave the Cougars a 62-54 lead with 3:20 to play, their largest lead of the game. The Sunbirds rallied to within 3 before Simon’s controversial putback, which could have been whistled for goaltending thwarted Fresno Pacific’s final rally. Another Gervin trey with 1:25 to play sealed the victory.
With the victory, Azusa Pacific pushes its win streak to 7 straight and improves to 12-2 on the season and a perfect 4-0 in the GSAC, setting up a showdown with the NAIA’s top-ranked Concordia, which is 15-0 overall and 4-0 in the GSAC, in Saturday’s GSAC game in Azusa. Fresno Pacific falls to 10-5 overall, 2-2 in the GSAC.