VIDEO HIGHLIGHTS BELOW AFTER GAME STORY
AZUSA, Calif. -- For anyone wondering what Azusa Pacific’s men’s basketball team might look like with 11 newcomers to the program, one simple word sums it up.
The NAIA’s No. 9-ranked Cougars wreaked havoc for a full 40 minutes, and although snapshots at different points of the game may not have told the entire story, the final score did. A 92-57 victory over La Sierra in Tuesday’s season opener was exactly the result that an intense, focused performance at both ends of the floor was inevitably going to produce, even if Azusa Pacific had its fair share of opening-game flaws to address.
The Cougars barely made over half their free throws, were out-rebounded (50-48) and gave up 22 offensive boards. However, the frenzied tempo established in the game’s opening moments lasted all the way through the final buzzer, and Azusa Pacific’s 20 steals led to 35 points off turnovers, which just happened to be the final margin of victory.
However, the positives far outweighed the negatives, especially in the second half, and the entertaining, energetic performance electrified a vocally-appreciative student contingent that gave the non-conference matchup the feel of a contest with far greater implications.
“We want to play fast and on attack, but with a purpose,” fifth-year head coach Justin Leslie said. “It’s not run-and-gun – in the second half we got more solid defensively, and that’s what sped the game up. It should be an exciting brand of basketball. My players had a great time, and the fans were really good and all of that together made it a great opening night for us.”
Senior guard Marshall Johnson scored a team-high 21 points, going 10-of-13 at the free throw line, and junior forward Tyler Monroe came off the bench and had a double-double by halftime, ending up with 19 points and a game-high 14 rebounds.
The Cougars held 30-point margins in both bench scoring and points in the paint, limiting the Golden Eagles to just 28 percent (19-for-69) shooting from the field and just 15 percent (3-for-20) from beyond the three-point line.
“I think we’re built for this (tempo),” Johnson said. “We’re all athletes, and that’s the way we want to play. We want to play fast and on attack, but still controlled, and tonight was a lot of fun.”
La Sierra did everything it could to keep the game within reach, staying within 10 points through the entire opening half and pulling to within eight at 45-37 with the first score of the second half. However, that’s when the relentless tempo slammed the Golden Eagles into the proverbial wall. Johnson pushed the lead back to 10 with a pair of free throws on the ensuing possession, starting a run of seven consecutive possessions in which the Cougars scored.
“I thought we adjusted really well from the first half to second half defensively, in terms of forcing tempo and dictating where the ball goes,” Leslie said. “Forcing them into turnovers and tough shots really fueled our offense. We really had a good defensive energy in the second half. We focused in and rebounded better in the second half, and it led to a lot of high-percentage looks for us.”
After La Sierra missed a three-point attempt that would have trimmed the margin back into single digits, Brandon Dunson, a six-foot-two senior transfer from Arizona State, threw down a putback dunk that rattled both the basket and the Golden Eagles’ poise. Johnson took advantage, picking off a pass for a fast-break layup and free throw for a three-point play before hitting a three-pointer off a Dunson assist that capped an eight-point flurry in just 35 seconds of game action.
“We’re getting used to each other, but in this type of open offense the chemistry has to be there,” Johnson said. “It’s all about making reads off one another, and we’re still trying to get it. We have a smart group of guys who are picking it up every day, so as the season goes on you’re going to start to see things come together.”
Sophomore point guard Robert Sandoval’s three-pointer, again set up by Dunson, pushed the lead beyond 20 points for the first time, 58-37. In just two minutes, a potentially-manageable eight-point deficit for La Sierra had unraveled into an out-of-control 21-point mountain. The only two times the Golden Eagles got closer than 20 the rest of the way, Azusa Pacific responded less than 20 seconds later.
The Cougars led by as many as 38 points, doing so after junior guard B.J. Porter hit back-to-back three-pointers to spark a 20-6 run that pushed the lead to 92-54 with just over two minutes to play. All 11 of La Sierra’s second-half turnovers came from Azusa Pacific steals, and all 11 Cougars in uniform played for at least six minutes.
“We have multiple guys who can play inside, multiple guys who can handle the ball, and multiple shooters, so it’s going to be interesting to see this develop,” Leslie said. “With 11 new guys in the system, it’s going to take time. We’re a work in progress, but I like what we have.”
With the win, Azusa Pacific starts the season with a win as the Cougars head into a challenging three-game stretch of NCAA Division II opponents. Two of the three contests are exhibition games against Div. II powers Alaska-Anchorage and Grand Valley State, while a Nov. 10 visit to Lewis (Ill.) counts as the next official game on the Cougars’ schedule.