AZUSA, Calif. -- Decked out in bright orange throwback uniforms for the first time since the university changed its colors to brick and black in 1998, the NAIA’s No. 7-ranked Azusa Pacific opened with a 13-2 run and never looked back in an 85-66 dismantling of No. 4-ranked Concordia Saturday night at the Felix Event Center.
The Cougars never let up on the throttle, extending an eight-point halftime margin to as many as 23 points with a 69 percent (18-for-26) second-half shooting effort. The special uniforms in the old school colors, along with a halftime ceremony, were part of a full weekend of activities honoring the 1992-93 team, which won the first of an unprecedented nine consecutive GSAC championships, posted the program’s first 30-win season, and compiled the first and only undefeated conference record (12-0) in GSAC history.
“We have banners up in our locker room, and the 1992-93 banner is the very first one,” Cougar head coach Justin Leslie said. “This gym doesn’t get built if that team didn’t start that run, and this whole program that we have is all because that team started something special. We’re building off that success, and even though it probably doesn’t get talked about enough, their impact is still here. Today after our shootaround, the manager from that team (Kurt Van Noord) gave a devotion and a message to our team that was as inspiring as any I’ve ever heard. It really resonated with the guys, and they really felt a sense of responsibility for being the caretakers of what they’ve been given.”
Senior guard Brandon Dunson scored five of his team-high 18 points in the first two minutes of the game-opening run, and he was joined by five other Cougars in double figures. Sophomore point guard Robert Sandoval dished out a game-high nine assists with only one turnover, and senior forward Anthony Johnson tallied 11 points to go with a game-high nine rebounds to lead Azusa Pacific to a 36-33 edge on the boards.
“Any night can be anybody’s night on this team,” Dunson said. “We have so much talent, and as long as we’re playing hard and playing together, things are going to open up. With all the players we have who bring so much to the table, teams have to choose what they want to take away from us. That opens up everything else for all of us.”
After Dunson got the Cougars rolling with a layup and three-pointer for the first five points, Monroe threw down the first of his two dunks of the night, a right-handed slam from the baseline off a dish from Sandoval. The closest Concordia got in the first half was four points, after Donnell Phifer cashed in a pair of fast-break points with a layup that trimmed the lead to 17-13.
However, Dunson cruised through the lane to slam home a putback dunk of a Justin Haynes miss on the ensuing possession, sparking a six-point burst that pushed the lead back into double digits in a matter of just 70 seconds.
“We have to play harder than our opponent every game and focus on the details,” Dunson said. “Whether it’s practice or game time, we have to have a complete effort, play as hard as we can, do what the coaches tell us, and just play Cougar basketball.”
The Cougars’ 32-24 halftime edge expanded into double digits again when Azusa Pacific made its first five shots of the second half, including dunks from Dunson and Monroe on consecutive possessions in the first two minutes after halftime. Dunson put down a lob from Sandoval to push the lead to 36-26, and when his drive into the paint on the next trip downcourt drew a crowd of Eagle defenders, Dunson found Monroe alone on the baseline for another jam that brought the Felix Event Center’s season-high crowd of 1,789 to its feet.
“We’re going to find a way to score eventually, if we’re getting stops and defending,” Leslie said. “Defense is the key. In the second half, we ran two plays and scored 53 points. When we defend, it’s just a miracle how those points find a way to show up on the board for us.”
The Cougars methodically worked the lead to 20 points with a series of mini-runs throughout the second half, hitting the 20-point margin after Monroe knocked down a pair of free throws with 4:15 to play. A B.J. Porter trey with 2:18 remaining gave Azusa Pacific a 23-point lead (79-56), its largest of the game.
Concordia was led by six-foot-10 center Tommy Granado’s 21-point effort on a nine-of-10 performance from the field, although he was limited to just five rebounds. Austin Simon and Donnell Phifer each added 12 points and three assists for the Eagles, who had swept all three of last year’s meetings with Azusa Pacific.
“Azusa Pacific and Concordia have both been at the top of the GSAC standings, and we’ve played in multiple conference championship games against each other over the last several years,” Leslie said. “It’s a very competitive rivalry. This type of game is competitive and intense, and it brings out the best in you. Tonight, I was just so impressed with my team in how poised they were on offense, because Concordia’s pressure will speed you up into making you do things that are uncharacteristic.”
The Cougar defense held the GSAC’s top scoring offense 27 points below its season average of 93 points, and Concordia misfired on 14 consecutive three-point attempts until the Eagles hit a pair of treys in the final 63 seconds to finish two-for-16 from beyond the arc.
“My entire staff, but especially assistant coach Jeff Rutter, did a great job of preparing the team for this game,” Leslie said. “Our redshirts and some of our guys who don’t play a lot were an unbelievable scout team, studying Concordia film and putting together realistic game situations that we could practice defending against. When our freshmen and redshirts started scoring on our starters and key guys, that was a big dose of humble pie and reality, and that really went a long way in terms of preparing us.”
Both teams share identical 14-3 overall records and sit in a four-way tie for second place in the GSAC with a 4-2 league mark. Azusa Pacific visits one of them Tuesday night when they take on Point Loma Nazarene (11-4, 4-2 GSAC) in San Diego.
VIDEO HIGHLIGHTS (filmed & edited by Rob Small)