FRESNO, Calif. -- The NAIA’s No. 7-ranked Azusa Pacific surrendered a game-opening 13-0 run and never recovered from its worst half of basketball all year in a 74-54 defeat at Fresno Pacific Tuesday night.
The 42-18 halftime margin represented the Cougars’ lowest scoring half all year, and the Sunbirds’ 42-point half was the best opening half by an Azusa Pacific foe this year. Fresno Pacific rained threes in the first half, knocking down their first three during the 13-point run to start the game and hitting nine-of-12 from long range in the first 20 minutes of action.
It took the Cougars over three minutes just to get up their first shot attempt of the contest after turnovers on its first two possessions, and by that time Fresno Pacific’s Eric Hipolito had knocked down his first two triples to get his game-high 17-point performance rolling. Midway through the first half, Hipolito hit two more three-pointers to push the Sunbirds’ lead to 18 points (30-12), sparking an 18-6 run over the final 8:17 of the first half.
“That first 12 minutes was the perfect storm for them,” Cougar head coach Justin Leslie said. “Give Hipolito credit for hitting four threes, and Donte Nicholas comes in with one three on the year and goes two-for-two against us. They made tough shots on contested threes, and combine that with our awful performance on the offensive side, and that was all she wrote.”
All four Sunbirds with three-point makes in the first half had entered the game shooting less than 30 percent from three-point range, including Hipolito and Nicholas, who entered the game a combined one-of-15 on three-pointers this year. Hipolito hit four-of-six in the first half, while Nicholas was a perfect two-of-two on threes.
The closest Azusa Pacific got in the second half was 12 points, when freshman Kevin Stafford’s three-pointer with 8:34 remaining capped an 18-4 run that trimmed the Fresno Pacific lead to 52-40. Stafford hit two other threes during the run, which included 12 consecutive points over a five-minute stretch.
Just a minute later, a Jake Hager layup followed by a pair of free throws on a foul that got the Sunbirds into the bonus with 7:28 remaining gave Fresno Pacific some breathing room. Hipolito, Nicholas, and Antonio Credit each missed one-of-two free throws over a two-minute span to keep Azusa Pacific within striking distance at 61-46 following a Justin Haynes layup with 4:53 to play. The Sunbirds knocked down nine-of-12 at the line down the stretch, while the Cougars didn’t hit another field goal after Haynes’ layup until the final minute, when Justin Jones and Robert Sandoval cut Fresno Pacific’s largest lead of the game (26 points) down to the final 20-point margin.
“We battled in the second half, but it was too little, too late,” Leslie said. “We made the shots to get back into it, but we weren’t consistently getting stops. Every time we took a few steps forward, we promptly took several steps back.”
Eight of Azusa Pacific’s 12 turnovers came in the first half, and the Sunbirds took advantage for 14 first-half points off turnovers and 21 for the game. Fresno Pacific missed only six shots in the first half, knocking down 13-of-19 (68 percent) from the field including nine-of-12 (75 percent) from three-point range.
Hipolito led all scorers with 17 points, and Nicholas added 16 points with a game-high seven rebounds. Haynes and Stafford shared the Azusa Pacific scoring lead with nine points each, and Sandoval dished out six assists to go with his seven-point effort for the Cougars. After halftime, the Sunbirds shot seven-of-18 (39 percent) from the field, including 0-for-five on three-pointers, scoring 18 of their 32 second-half points from the free throw line.
“It’s funny – the harder we play defensively, the harder it is for the other team to score,” said Leslie. “You would think that would be pretty obvious, but we just didn’t compete in the first half the way we needed to. It was too big a hill to climb up after that.”
With the loss, Azusa Pacific drops to 13-3 overall and 3-2 in GSAC play, while Fresno Pacific halts its three-game GSAC losing skid to improve to 11-5 overall and 2-3 GSAC. The Cougars return home Saturday to host the NAIA’s No. 4-ranked Concordia, which moved into a three-way tie for the conference lead after knocking off previously-unbeaten The Master’s Tuesday night in Irvine. Saturday’s men’s and women’s basketball GSAC doubleheader will be streamed live over the Internet at APU Live.