SAN DIEGO, Calif. -- Azusa Pacific might be a legitimate Golden State Athletic Conference title contender, but it certainly didn’t look the part Tuesday night after letting a winnable game slip through its fingers in a 67-65 road defeat to Point Loma Nazarene.
Three nights earlier, the NAIA’s No. 7-ranked Cougars handed two-time defending conference champion Concordia its worst regular-season loss since 2005, but Azusa Pacific coughed up 17 turnovers against the unranked Sea Lions on a night it could have moved into a tie for the conference lead.
“We were good on Saturday, but once we get on the road we seem to forget about doing all the little things that made us so good,” Cougar head coach Justin Leslie said. “Our biggest problem right now is our commitment to details. In games like this and the other close ones we’ve lost, it’s been a matter of teams being able to execute better than us.”
Greg Murray exploded for a season-high 23 points off the bench for the Sea Lions, and it was his three-pointer in the final minute that gave Point Loma Nazarene the lead for good in the Sea Lions’ fifth consecutive GSAC victory. The Cougars’ miscues led to a costly 20 Point Loma Nazarene points off turnovers as Azusa Pacific suffered its second consecutive road defeat. Despite the loss, Azusa Pacific's 4-3 Golden State Athletic Conference record is just one game back of a three-way tie for the conference lead, which is shared by Point Loma Nazarene, Westmont, and The Master's.
“We’re still in a good spot, but it’s imperative that we start playing better basketball,” Leslie said. “There’s a mental toughness it takes to win close games, and to win conference games. Every game has need-to-score possessions where you need to be able to execute. The teams that are going to be championship-caliber teams have to be able to do that, and we haven’t been able to do it consistently.”
Murray's efforts eclipsed a late Azusa Pacific surge led by sophomore point guard Robert Sandoval, who scored seven of his team-high 15 points in the final seven minutes. Sandoval buried a three-pointer, one of only three treys the Cougars hit on the night, to cut Point Loma Nazarene's lead to 54-53 with 6:56 remaining.
Less than a minute later, he got into the lane for a layup that tied the game at 56-56, and he knocked down a jumper with 4:02 to play that finally pushed Azusa Pacific in front, 60-58.
Azusa Pacific also scored on each of its next two possessions, taking two-point leads on a pair of Brandon Dunson free throws with 3:19 to play and a Dunson drive for layup that gave the Cougars a 64-62 edge with 2:32 remaining.
After Tyler Monroe rebounded Hayden Lescault's missed three-pointer, Point Loma's physical perimeter defense forced senior guard Justin Haynes into a turnover when he lost the ball out of bounds. Murray knocked down the go-ahead triple on the very next possession, and he and Klassen each went one-for-two at the free throw line down the stretch to keep the Sea Lions in front.
Azusa Pacific registered a 33-27 edge on the boards and shot 53 percent (26-of-49) from the field, while the Sea Lions helped keep the Cougars around with a dreadful 12-of-24 performance from the free throw line. Still, it was Azusa Pacific's 17 turnovers, 10 of which came in the second half, that led to Point Loma's 20-8 margin in points off turnovers.
“Point Loma deserves a lot of credit, because they played very hard and made big plays when they needed it,” Leslie said. “At the same time, we’ve got to value the ball a whole lot more. Seventeen turnovers in a low-possession game is an astronomical number. That was a huge red flag, and those are the type of things you can’t do on the road and expect to win.”
Monroe finished with 14 points and 11 rebounds, posting his fourth double-double of the year. Haynes scored 12 points, and Dunson added 11 for the Cougars.
Led by Murray's 23 points, Point Loma Nazarene also enjoyed a 33-7 margin in bench scoring, while Klassen (14 points) and Lescault (13 points) joined Murray in double figures.
With the loss, Azusa Pacific falls to 14-4 overall, while Point Loma Nazarene improves to 12-4 overall, 5-2 GSAC. The Cougars return home, where they are 11-1 this season, for their next three contests, starting with Friday night's GSAC matchup with San Diego Christian.