AZUSA, Calif. -- The NAIA's No. 9-ranked Azusa Pacific used an 18-4 run early in the first half for an early double-digit lead, and the Cougars pushed the lead as high as 25 points in the second half of an 89-73 win over St. Thomas (Fla.).
“There was a huge emphasis we had to come out efficient starting each half, and that was a huge victory for us tonight,” Cougar head coach Justin Leslie said. “It really got the ball rolling the right way. (An early lead) gives us an opportunity to see how they’re playing, to see what potential opportunities there are to counter them. The first few minutes of a game are very important.”
Sophomore point guard Robert Sandoval scored a game-high 21 points, and he did so on just nine shots from the field. He hit five-of-six from three-point range and added a pair of free throws, and he was seven-of-nine from the field in the second-highest scoring night of his career. His first triples of the game came on consecutive possessions, helping spark the early 18-4 run that turned a one-point edge into a 15-point spread in a matter of about eight minutes.
“Robert is playing confident right now, and his efficiency on the offensive end is very high to start the season,” Leslie said. “He’s got an understanding of where his places are, and he’s taking advantage of it. He’s not trying too much, and he’s scoring well on limited shots. As your point guard goes, that’s going to translate to the rest of the team.”
Three others joined Sandoval in double figures, with senior guard Marshall Johnson tossing in 14 points to go with a game-high five assists, and sophomore forward Christian Katuala turned in a 12-point, seven-rebound performance.
St. Thomas was one shot under 50 percent from the field, and the Bobcats jacked up 16 second-half three-point attempts to try to shoot their way back into the contest. However, even Kevin Hincapie’s 19-point effort off the bench with five treys in the second half wasn’t enough for St. Thomas to close the gap back down to single digits. Another Sandoval three-pointer with 8:50 to play was the catalyst of another seven-point burst that gave the Cougars its largest lead of the game, a 25-point spread of 72-57 with 7:59 remaining.
The Bobcats stayed between 18 and 24 points down the rest of the game until a pair of free throws in the final minute cut the game’s final margin to 16 points. Outside of Hincapie’s deadly three-point shooting accuracy, the rest of his team was a combined four-of-15 from beyond the arc.
“It was a very physical game, and they defend very similar to Concordia,” Leslie said. “Some of our guys were frustrated or a little surprised by some of what happened out there, but you just have to go out and play basketball. They gave us a lot of different looks, and they played really hard.”
Senior forward Justin Haynes provided the most memorable second-half highlight, throwing down an authoritative dunk in the lane over a St. Thomas player in the lane, a slam that pushed the lead to 79-57 with just under five minutes remaining.
With the win, Azusa Pacific improves to 2-1 overall, dropping St. Thomas to 1-4 on the season. The Cougars are back in action Saturday, hosting Westminster (Utah) at 3 p.m. in the Felix Event Center, part of a stretch where Azusa Pacific plays 10 out of 12 games at home.