RIVERSIDE, Calif. –- Some time from now history may note this as another easy victory in a long string of Azusa Pacific wins, but for the time being, and for anyone who was present, there was nothing easy about the Cougars’ 77-63 victory over GSAC rival California Baptist Tuesday night in Riverside.
Azusa Pacific, which earlier in the day moved up to No. 4 in the latest NAIA Coaches Top 25 Poll, trailed for the better part of this game and oftentimes in double digits, at one point staring up at California Baptist from a 12-point hole. However, the Cougars, who had been sluggish throughout most of the night, picked up the pace over the final 14 minutes of the game and used a 25-5 run to turn a 46-36 deficit into an insurmountable 61-51 lead with less than 4 minutes to go as the Cougars collected their 18th win in the past 19 meetings with the Lancers.
Behind the play of Ryan Roberts, Cal Baptist went on a 13-4 run midway through the first half to take control of the game and assume its biggest lead of the game at 31-19 with 3 minutes left in the first half. The Lancers dominated play in the paint, out-rebounding Azusa Pacific 23-12, which included 11 offensive rebounds to explain CBU’s 10 second-chance points compared to the Cougars’ paltry 2. Four different Lancers had 4 or more rebounds in the first half and as result California Baptist held a rather impressive 33-24 lead at the break.
The second half, though, was a different kind of impressiveness.
“I challenged their manhood a little bit,” said Azusa Pacific Coach Bill Odell about his halftime talk. “We were getting pushed around all over. They need to understand that every night out is a war. Tonight, we just backed off. Cal Baptist was more aggressive, got every loose ball and made their own breaks, but in the second half we made a few breaks of our own.”
Following a Drew Twiss trey to put the Lancers up 46-36 with 14:11 left in the game, the Cougars went to work, applying physical, and probably some mental, pressure on the Lancers. Ladrick Simon started a 10-0 Azusa Pacific run with a high-arch fade-away jumper in the key and Brett Michel capped the mini run with a conventional 3-point play to tie the game at 46-46, the first tie since 9-9 just 5 minutes into the game.
California Baptist briefly regained the lead at 48-46 before the Cougars answered with another 15-5 run, taking the lead for good at 50-48 on a Simon lay-up at the 8:43 mark. The Lancers began to disintegrate under the pressure of the Cougar run, missing 8 of its next 9 shots, including 4 straight 3-point attempts, and 3 of 4 free throws, including the front end of a pair of one-and-ones.
Simon and All-GSAC guard Caleb Gervin took advantage of the Lancer falter, combining for 15 of the Cougars’ final 29 points. Gervin, who sat out 7 minutes of the first half with 2 fouls, tallied 19 of his game-high 22 points in the final 18 minutes of play, burying a pair of treys in the process, including the coffin-nailer that put the Cougars up 64-53 with 3:38 remaining. He snared a career-high 11 rebounds for his first double-double of the season.
“We know what to do,” Gervin explained of the Cougars’ second-half comeback. “We got a couple of stops, played together and executed the offense. We knew our shots would eventually fall.”
Simon finished with 18 points and 5 rebounds while Michel continued his torrid shooting, accounting for 16 points on 6-of-8 shooting.
“Whether it goes in or not, I’m feeling really confident right now when I shoot the ball,” said Michel, who is 12-for-14 from the floor over the past 2 games and 18-for-27 the past 2 weeks. “I’ve been shooting a lot in practice and it seems to be paying off, so I’m not going to be shy.”
Jeff Staniland added 12 points, including 9 in the final 2-and-a-half minutes, to go along with a team-high 4 assists
“They out-scrapped us in the first half,” said Staniland, “and at halftime we said to one another that even if we don’t play well, we’re going to play harder than Cal Baptist. When we started holding them to one shot, the game chanaged. They knew we were coming, and they began to feel the pressure. We know how to play at that time of the game.”
Indeed the Cougars did hold Cal Baptist to several 1-shot possessions, out-rebounding the Lancers, 23-17, over the final 20 minutes. Additionally, they held the Lancers 25 points below their season average by forcing the GSAC’s top shooting team (52%) to just 42% shooting (25-for-60) on its home court.
“I thought our defense was solid the whole game,” said Odell. “It was just that we gave them too many second looks in the first half.”
Azusa Pacific has now won 11 straight to improve to 16-2 on the season, 8-0 in the GSAC, 1 game ahead of second-place Concordia. California Baptist has its 4-game winning streak snapped and falls to 11-7 overall, 2-5 in the GSAC.