AZUSA, Calif. -- Freshman guards Robert Sandoval and Nolan Abernathy offered a sneak peek into the future, which may be coming quicker than most anticipated, with a collective and controlled effort that was dominating and impressive in Azusa Pacific’s 111-81 Golden State Athletic Conference victory over Hope International University Saturday night in the Felix Event Center.
The rookie duo came off the bench to ignite the Cougars’ best offensive onslaught of the season, combining for 37 points on 16-for 22 shooting to go along with 8 rebounds, 7 assists, and couple of steals along the way. And for rookies under pressure, they were sterling with the ball, committing just 2 turnovers
“Those 2 freshmen are pretty good, and they are just starting to figure it out and get comfortable with how they can play together,” said fourth-year Cougar Head Coach Justin Leslie.”
Sandoval scored a career- and team-high 21 points, and likewise Abernathy scored a career-high 16 as the pair consistently sprinted up the floor and attacked the basket with big men hanging out nearby despite neither freshman eclipsing 6-feet in height.
“The faster paced game is how I like to play,” said Abernathy, “that’s how I played in high school. I prefer to attack the basket, it suits my game better, and I feel like it’s easier to get to the rim and then it opens up threes for others.”
Sandoval got the Cougars going early, scoring 7 consecutive points in a 16-0 Cougar run that was eventually capped by an Abernathy lay-up to put Azusa Pacific up 24-6 just 7 minutes into the contest.
From there the sprint was on.
Led by Sandoval and Abernathy, the Cougars ran the floor with precision and with frequency the entire game, as Hope International offered little resistance, seemingly enjoying the high pace of play as well but struggling to match Azusa Pacific’s efficiency. The Cougars managed over 90 possessions, and converted 59-percent (40-of-68) of their shots. They committed just 9 turnovers -- a pleasing number to Leslie considering who was handling the ball and at what pace the game was being maintained – and they produced 32 free throw attempts, 11 over their season average.
“I think we’re deep and playing to that tempo was certainly to our advantage,” said Leslie. “It was a fun way for the guys to play too. We tried to speed them up as much as possible. I have a lot of respect for (Hope International) Coach (Bill) Czech, and I knew he would come in with some type of half-court defensive game plan to try to take something away. So we tried to not let it become a half-court game.”
Azusa Pacific led 53-32 at halftime, and weathered an Aaron Woods 3-point barrage to open the second half in which the Royals’ sophomore guard drilled 4 consecutive 3-pointers to get the Hope International to within 17 points less than 4 minutes into the second half.
However, junior Dallas Rutherford, another reserve guard, came off the bench to score the Cougars’ next 5 points, burying a 3-pointer of his own from the left corner, to restore order and give the Cougars’ control of the game.
In one stretch, Sandoval and Abernathy combined the Cougars’ next 7 points, 6 coming off lay-ups as the pair picked apart a Royal defense that was too spread out to close seams to the basket.
“We did a good job of moving the ball and spacing it out so that I could go to the basket” said Sandoval. “For me this is a fun and exciting way to play basketball, going up and down the court.”
“Robert and Nolan are talented players,” said Leslie, “but like any freshman, the college game is significantly different. We give our players a lot of freedom, but with that freedom comes responsibility, and it’s taken them awhile to get accustomed to it, but they sure are doing it now.”
Azusa Pacific pushed its lead to as much as 39 points when another reserve, senior Danny Nugent made a jumper to put the Cougars up 106-67 with 4:50 left in the game.
As for the Cougars starters, they did play as well. Senior center Reggie Owens, the frequent benefactor of Sandoval and Abernathy drives to the basket, picked up 17 points on 7-for-10 shooting to go along with a game-high 7 rebounds. Swing Marshall Johnson chipped 16 points, 5 rebounds and 3 assists in 22 minutes of play.
“This year Rob and I are just trying to contribute to the team,” added Abernathy. “We’ve got great seniors, and we’re just trying to get them going. In the future it will be our team.”
Woods led all players with a season-high 26 points but it was all for naught as Hope International fell to Azusa Pacific for the 27th consecutive time.
Azusa Pacific pushes its winning streak to 11 in a row and improves to 16-2 on the season, 7-1 in GSAC play. The Cougars will be home again on Tuesday (Jan. 18) when they host The Master’s College in GSAC game that tips off in the Felix Event Center at 7:30 p.m.