COSTA MESA, Calif. -- On the road, very little goes according to plan.
Azusa Pacific discovered that first-hand Saturday night, but the Cougars calmly shrugged off Vanguard’s 12-2 game-opening run, some early foul trouble, and a below-average rebounding effort to emerge from The Pit in Costa Mesa with a 67-63 Golden State Athletic Conference victory in the first of back-to-back road games for Azusa Pacific, which had played 11 of its first 14 games this season at home.
The Cougars turned the ball over on five consecutive possessions early on, including a pair of offensive fouls on starting point guard Robert Sandoval, who was one of four players tagged for two fouls in the opening half. However, senior guard Brandon Dunson scored Azusa Pacific’s first points just over four minutes into the game, and he sparked the 17-3 run that immediately answered Vanguard’s initial surge with Sandoval on the bench for the final 17 minutes of the period.
“We were dead in the water, but Brandon absolutely took over that first half,” Cougar head coach Justin Leslie said. “He got us some easy baskets after we had a very poor start offensively. We had to climb out of that early hole, and Brandon was the key to getting us rolling in the first half.”
Dunson’s putback slam of a missed three-pointer gave the Cougars a 19-15 lead with 8:38 to play in the first half, and he had a hand in over two-thirds of Azusa Pacific’s first-half points. Dunson made six-of-seven shots for 12 points, and his three first-half assists led to another eight points, helping the foul-troubled Cougars make it into halftime with a 29-27 lead.
“Vanguard is a difficult team to trap or pressure,” Leslie said. “With our size advantage over them, I liked defensively how we forced them into difficult, contested shots on the perimeter.”
In the second half, Sandoval stayed out of foul trouble, scoring 10 points with four assists while senior forward Anthony Johnson also tallied 10 points after halftime in his 12-point, eight-rebound performance off the bench. Dunson finished with a team-high 15 points, and junior guard B.J. Porter added 11 points to contribute to Azusa Pacific’s 28-5 margin in bench scoring.
A Johnson three-pointer with 17:26 remaining in the game gave the Cougars their largest lead of the game, a nine-point margin at 40-31, but Vanguard stormed back with a 13-1 run that pushed the Lions back in front by three, 44-41, with 13:54 to play. Sandoval scored the next five Azusa Pacific points, hitting a three-pointer that tied the game at 46-46 with 12:11 remaining, and it was another Sandoval bucket with 30 seconds to play that broke a 63-63 deadlock and gave the Cougars the lead for good.
Cameron Nettles missed his game-tying attempt in the final 10 seconds, and Johnson knocked down two free throws with four seconds left to ice the game and provide the final four-point margin.
“Now that we have 15 games plus exhibitions under our belt, you can see statistically that there isn’t much we’re really good at except defense,” Leslie sad. “We’re hard to score on, and we hold teams to low shooting percentages from the floor and from three. Defensively, we’ve got a shot to be really good, and it’s been encouraging to still have a chance to win a lot of these games where we’re not executing as well as you’d like offensively.”
Vanguard was led by Christopher Raybon’s game-high 17 points, and Christopher Kupets and Nettles scored 16 each. Although the Lions surrendered just eight turnovers in the game, they shot just three-of-10 on first half free throws and one-of-nine on second-half three-pointers, part of a game-long struggle to find an offensive rhythm. Vanguard finished the game shooting 39 percent (24-of-61) from the field, including a chilly 25 percent (five-of-20) from three-point range.
“We’re still learning along the way, but the constant for us this year has been that when the game’s on the line and we need to get stops, we’ve been able to do that,” Leslie said. “In our season so far, and our current winning streak, the constant has been how we’ve defended.”
The Cougars, on the other hand, hit exactly 50 percent from the field (26-of-52), and despite allowing Vanguard to snag 12 offensive rebounds that led to eight second-chance points for the Lions, Azusa Pacific won the overall rebounding battle, 36-30.
With the win, the Cougars have now won seven in a row to improve to 13-2 overall and 3-1 in GSAC play. Vanguard falls to 9-6 overall, 1-3 GSAC. Azusa Pacific continues GSAC action with a Tuesday, Jan. 10 visit to Fresno Pacific.