SANTA BARBARA, Calif. -- Good teams can go on the road and win.
It's the great teams that find a way to win without their best game.
Although the final score of Tuesday's Golden State Athletic Conference opener indicated a 71-50 blowout win over Westmont, the NAIA's No. 9-ranked Azusa Pacific produced the impressive result with its attention to the little things, namely a defensive focus and a determination to win the battle on the boards that provides an early glimpse at the Cougars’ potential to make some noise within the GSAC as well as on a national level.
“These early GSAC games are very difficult and have a lot of pressure because you don’t feel like you’re ready this early in the season,” Cougar head coach Justin Leslie said. “I’m proud of how we competed tonight. Offensively, we were not clicking at all, but we really knew their stuff inside and out. I was very pleased to win by more than 20 points with a subpar offensive effort.”
Junior forward Tyler Monroe was the game's scoring and rebounding leader, finishing with a season-high 21 points and 13 rebounds for his second double-double of the season and first since the season opener nearly a month ago. His performance helped lead Azusa Pacific to a 44-29 rebounding advantage, and senior forward Anthony Johnson did his part, as well, adding 17 points and eight rebounds for the Cougars.
“They had Tyler forced away from the basket early on, but he’s a difference maker around the hoop,” Leslie said. “He finishes really well, and he can dunk in traffic, so we just made the adjustment of getting him around the rim where he could be in position to catch and score, and guys did a good job of getting him passes. “
After hitting just six of its first 23 shot attempts in the game's first 15 minutes, the Cougars turned the game around using defense. After Christopher Miller knocked down a three-pointer with 5:33 to play in the first half to give Westmont a six-point (23-17) lead, its largest lead of the game, the Cougars responded by holding the Warriors to just a single field goal over the next eight minutes of action.
“The coaching staff did a great job preparing our guys for what they were going to see,” Leslie said. “The players were talking, they were in the spots they needed to be, and our defense was so good that on a night we played this bad offensively, the result reflects what was just a fantastic defensive effort. The effort never let down on the defensive side of the ball.”
During an eight-minute stretch that spanned over five minutes in the first half and nearly three more minutes after halftime, Azusa Pacific finally got itself rolling with some easy buckets and a 19-3 run that gave the Cougars the lead for good. The bulk of the run came in the form of a 13-2 burst to close out the first half, giving Azusa Pacific a 30-25 halftime edge.
Monroe threw down a dunk on the opening second-half possession and scored the Cougars' first eight points after halftime, and Westmont didn't score its first points of the second half until nearly three minutes had elapsed. Preston Branson's three-pointer cut Azusa Pacific's lead to seven points at 36-29, and the Warriors fought back to within six points (40-34) with 14:49 remaining.
After senior guard Marshall Johnson knocked down a three-pointer that was followed by a conventional three-point play from Monroe, the Cougar lead was back in double figures in a span of less than a minute. Westmont never got closer than seven points over the final 14 minutes of the game, and an Anthony Johnson three-pointer pushed the lead back into double figures for good over the final nearly-seven minutes of action left.
Westmont was able to close the gap to 11 points (61-50) thanks to another trey from Miller with 3:11 to play, but the Warriors didn't score again the rest of the way while Azusa Pacific finished the game with a 9-0 run for the final 71-50 margin.
The Cougars finished the game with a .429 (24-for-56) shooting percentage in Azusa Pacific's final visit to Westmont's Murchison Gymnasium for the foreseeable future.
“There are years of emotional buildup to this game, because it’s a rivalry that’s grown over a long time,” Leslie said. “However, this team has no concept of that, and we’re still trying to find our identity. Our poise was tested, and I thought we responded really well.”
Branson finished with 17 points, but no other Warriors finished the game in double figures in scoring or rebounding. Miller was next on the list for Westmont, scoring eight points with nine rebounds.
Azusa Pacific is now 6-1 overall, 1-0 in GSAC play, while Westmont falls to 6-2 overall and 0-1 in GSAC play. The Cougars host Hope International Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at the Felix Event Center.