AZUSA, Calif. -- The best performance to date of Kevin Stafford’s young career almost didn’t happen.
Stafford scored a career-high nine points, making three-of-three from three-point range in a five-minute stretch midway through the second half of Azusa Pacific’s 87-84 win over Fraser Valley Tuesday night, but the bloody lower lip that resulted from an inadvertent elbow to the jaw could have forced him out of the game until his bleeding stopped.
“I cut it on my very first play when the guy I was guarding swung across high on a pass and got me in the lip,” Stafford said. “I felt it bleeding with my tongue, so I was trying to hide it because I wasn’t ready to come out of the game that early.”
Undaunted, Stafford pulled a veteran move to avoid being spotted by the officials and forced to take the mandatory substitution, calmly tucking his red lower lip into his tightly-clenched mouth as he stepped to the line for a set of free throws.
Good thing he did, because after the Cougars boarded his miss on the front end of the one-and-one, Stafford hit the game-tying three-pointer just 11 seconds later and knocked down another trey just a minute after that to give Azusa Pacific the lead for good.
“It’s my role to come in and knock my shots down, and my teammates were looking for me out there,” Stafford said. “I got a good screen and got open, so I just took it.”
The small gesture, likely unnoticed by most in attendance, kept him in the game long enough to provide the momentum-turning energy boost the Cougars needed to finally gain control of a game that featured 13 lead changes. His productive five-minute effort sparked a 16-5 run, turning a 58-55 deficit with just under 11 minutes remaining into a 71-63 edge with 6:58 left.
“He comes in early, he works hard, and those shots he took weren’t gifts of wide-open shots – two of them were one-dribble pull-ups where he had to fake the defender out and then make it,” Cougar head coach Justin Leslie said. “I told this team coming into the game that I would hold them accountable to the details, and some guys in front of him weren’t doing that. When his number was called, he was ready, and that five-minute stretch changed the game.”
Senior forward Tyler Monroe scored six of his team-high 17 points down the stretch, scoring six of Azusa Pacific’s 16 points in the final 5:26. Sophomore point guard Robert Sandoval also scored 17, hitting three-of-four three-pointers including both of his second-half attempts from long distance. Sandoval also registered a game-high five steals, while senior guard Justin Haynes added 13 points with three assists, three steals, and a block.
Fraser Valley twice pulled within two points of the Cougars late in the game. However, sophomore forward Christian Katuala put back an offensive rebound to push the lead to 81-77 with just under two minutes to play, and Monroe scored in the paint on the next offensive possession to answer a Joel Friesen layup that kept the margin at four points (83-79). Sandoval and senior guard Brandon Dunson each hit a pair of free throws in the final minute, and it took a running two-point jumper from Jordan Blackman as time expired to pull the final spread to three points with the final 87-84 tally.
In the first half, Fraser Valley led by as many as seven points, 11-4, before a Sandoval trey with 10:56 left in the opening period capped a 12-5 run that tied the game at 16-16. A Blackman dunk with 6:20 to play pushed the Cascades lead back to 30-24, but the Cougars closed out the half with an 11-4 run that gave Azusa Pacific the 35-34 halftime edge.
With the win, Azusa Pacific improves to 9-2 overall, while Fraser Valley drops to 12-8 overall. The Cougars host another pair of Canadian schools this week before returning to GSAC play on Tuesday, Jan. 3, at home against Biola.