AZUSA, Calif. -- Thank goodness for second chances.
Azusa Pacific coughed up all but two points of a double-digit first-half lead, but the NAIA’s No. 9-ranked Cougars made the most of the next 20 minutes, opening the second half with a 15-4 run to take control for good in an 81-67 victory over Central Methodist (Mo.) Wednesday night at the Felix Event Center.
The Cougars grabbed 10 offensive rebounds that led to a 14-2 edge in second-chance points, including the highlight of the night which featured senior point guard Brandon Dunson elevating through the lane to slam down a left-handed putback dunk midway through the second half. Dunson’s breathtaking high-wire act was part of an 8-0 run over a four-minute stretch that pushed Azusa Pacific’s lead to 63-44 with 8:14 remaining in the game.
“That dunk really raised our energy level, and I think that got things going for us in the second half,” Cougar head coach Justin Leslie said. “We had multiple tip jams, and while that’s fun and exciting, that’s really just a matter of toughness and effort, and being willing to stick your nose in there and take some hits. For us, to get 10 offensive rebounds was significant, because we turned those into points.”
Dunson, who finished with 10 points, was one of five players in double figures for Azusa Pacific, which has won nine consecutive home games and 19 of its past 20 at home. The Cougars were led in scoring by 16-point performances from senior guard Justin Haynes and junior guard B.J. Porter, who along with Dunson combined to hit 18 of 26 shots as Azusa Pacific hit 53 percent (35-for-66) from the field in the win.
“Philosophically, we play inside out, and because we have so many guys who can get in the lane different ways, it’s not your conventional post-up inside out,” Leslie said, “but it’s inside out nonetheless. This team we played only had three blocked shots on the season, so we knew that if we could just get into the lane, we knew we would have the opportunity to finish. You just have to be deliberate enough to get there, and eventually we got the movement in that direction, especially in the second half.”
Central Methodist was held without a field goal for over five minutes at the beginning of the game, starting the contest with a 12-1 deficit before out-scoring Azusa Pacific 18-9 over the final 5:06 of the first half to narrow the gap to just two points, 36-34. The Cougars started the second half in similar fashion, opening with a 15-4 run that pushed the lead back to 51-38 with 13:44 to play.
Sophomore forward Christian Katuala was six-of-eight from the floor for 12 points, and four of his six rebounds came on the offensive glass. Junior forward Tyler Monroe added 10 points on five-of-seven shooting, and sophomore point guard Robert Sandoval dished out a game-high eight assists despite playing limited minutes due to early foul trouble.
“The biggest difference between the two halves was Robert, and him having to sit the end of the first half with two fouls really hurt our rhythm to finish the half,” Leslie said. “I give Central Methodist credit for making adjustments, and without your point guard on the floor, it’s hard to react to those adjustments. For him to finish with eight assists in just 22 minutes is a really solid effort for him.”
Two of Central Methodist’s top three scorers came off the Eagles bench, led by a game-high 18-point effort from long-range shooting threat Egan Lavery. He was four-of-eight, taking all of his shots from beyond the three-point arc, and he was a perfect six-of-six at the free throw line. Alex Barner added 12 points and a game-high nine rebounds, also off the bench for Central Methodist, and Melvin Tillman scored 13 points and notched a team-high four assists for the Eagles.
With the win, Azusa Pacific improves to 4-1 overall heading into Friday’s home matchup with NAIA Division II’s No. 8-ranked Embry-Riddle (Fla.). Central Methodist falls to 2-4 on the year.