AZUSA, Calif. -- Every sports cliché is kept alive by the occasional real-world occurrence, and Hope International’s stunning 53-49 upset of the NAIA’s No. 9-ranked Azusa Pacific certainly refreshed its fair share of clichés with a recent example.
All good things must come to an end. – In this case, Azusa Pacific’s 28-game winning streak against Hope International, which was the Cougars’ longest active streak against any opponent in the program’s history.
That’s why they play the games. – Despite the dubious distinction of having the Golden State Athletic Conference’s fewest wins (14) and worst all-time winning percentage (.059) entering its 13th year of GSAC membership, the Royals knocked off the conference’s winningest program in Azusa Pacific, a 1986 charter member of the GSAC and the only men’s basketball program in the league with 300 all-time GSAC wins.
Take it one game at a time. – Just four days earlier, Azusa Pacific passed what many would consider one of the toughest road tests in the GSAC when it thumped Westmont by 21 points in its final visit to Murchison Gymnasium for the foreseeable future. However, tonight’s defeat subsequently dropped the Cougars to 0-1 in conference home games, snapping Azusa Pacific’s 10-game home winning streak with a rare setback at the Felix Event Center, where the Cougars were 166-29 (.851) entering Saturday’s contest.
Saturday’s result ended up as one of the most shocking defeats Azusa Pacific has ever suffered. The Cougars scored only two field goals over the final 11 minutes of the game, and Austin Sanford’s layup in the final minute served as the game-winner, breaking a 49-49 tie with 30 seconds left in the game.
“The difference in the game was they absolutely wanted this more than we did,” Cougar head coach Justin Leslie said. “They (Hope) were the better team tonight. When you line all the players up across the board, I feel like we should be better at each spot, but it’s a team game. They had a game plan, they had the roles that needed to be executed, and they did it.”
Sophomore point guard Robert Sandoval’s drive to the hoop with about 20 seconds remaining came up empty, and after the Royals controlled the rebound Steve Jurich knocked down a pair of free throws with 16 seconds to play to push the lead to the final 53-49 margin. Another layup was off the mark and controlled by Hope International, sealing the most shocking upset of the Royals’ GSAC history.
“Quite frankly, we just weren’t ready to come out and play with the level of respect that we needed to have for this matchup,” Leslie said. “We were still in a position to win, but it was effort plays, free throws, and rebounds that made the difference. On our home court, they wanted it more than we did, and that was the bottom line.”
Jurich finished with 15 points and 11 rebounds for the Royals, who edged Azusa Pacific in total rebounds (31-29), collected 11 offensive boards, and won the turnover battle by forcing 15 Cougar turnovers to the Royals’ 10. Jordan Gipson added 13 points, and Sanford’s game-winner gave him 10 points to go with five rebounds, four assists, and two steals.
Senior guard Marshall Johnson scored a team-high 11 points in 22 minutes off the bench, although he was one-for-five from the free throw line, where the Cougars were five-of-11 as a team. Senior forward Anthony Johnson was the only other Azusa Pacific player in double figures, scoring 10 points to go with a team-high seven rebounds.
Azusa Pacific opened up its biggest leads of the game in the first six minutes of each half, seemingly taking control in the first half with junior forward Tyler Monroe’s slam dunk off a baseline drive that gave the Cougars a 12-6 lead with 14:27 to go in the period. However, Azusa Pacific took its foot off the gas and went scoreless for the next seven minutes, allowing Hope International to regain the lead and send the game into halftime tied at 25-25.
“After we got up early, all of a sudden we got shell-shocked and never came out of it,” Leslie said. “There’s no way to sugarcoat the funk we were in. I can honestly say there wasn’t one single player we had who played a good game, and I don’t think we’ve ever been able to say that before.”
Monroe scored again on the Cougars’ opening second-half possession, and after Gipson’s three-pointer gave Hope a brief one-point lead, Monroe knocked down another jumper that was followed by six consecutive points from Anthony Johnson in an 8-0 run that gave Azusa Pacific its largest lead of the game at 35-28 with 16:08 remaining.
A few minutes later, Hope International regained the lead for one possession at 40-39 on an Aaron Woods three-pointer, one of three second-half leads that were promptly erased by Azusa Pacific on its next possession. After Monroe pushed the lead to 43-40 with 11:13 to go, the Cougars went scoreless for another five minutes until senior guard Brandon Dunson and Anthony Johnson scored a minute apart to regain the lead, 48-45, with less than five minutes to play.
The Cougars didn’t even attempt another two-point field goal until Sandoval’s drive in the closing seconds, instead settling for three missed three-pointers that accompanied another pair of missed free throws and two more costly turnovers.
“There were seven times a play was called that we ran wrong tonight, which is very uncharacteristic of us,” Leslie said. “When that happens, you’re not going to score on that possession, and when you waste possessions in a game like this, you gave the opponent exactly what they wanted.”
In the meantime, Hope also missed four-of-six free throws during that stretch until Jeremy Kilgore scored in transition off one of the Cougars’ three-point misses to give the Royals another one-point lead at 49-48 with 1:26 to play. Marshall Johnson was fouled, and he made one-of-two at the line to tie the game at 49-49 with just over a minute remaining.
With the loss, Azusa Pacific falls to 6-2 overall, 1-1 GSAC, while Hope International improves to 6-1 overall and 1-1 in GSAC play.
“I’m not sure where I’m going to go from here, because we’re clearly not where we needed to be,” Leslie said. “Tonight was 40 minutes of terrible. We have a lot of teaching that needs to happen, and we have a long way to go. It’s the first week of December, and with all the new guys we have and returners in different roles, we’re a work in progress. The talent level is certainly there, but we have to commit to getting better.”
The Cougars return to action with a visit to Cal State San Marcos on Saturday, Dec. 10, the first of five December non-conference games that precede Azusa Pacific’s return to GSAC play on Jan. 3 at home against Biola.