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AZUSA, Calif. -- For once, Azusa Pacific got to play the role of the hunter rather than the hunted, and the NAIA’s No. 16-ranked Cougars basked in the opportunity to put a dent in somebody else’s Golden State Athletic Conference title hopes, dealing No. 10-ranked The Master’s College a 77-63 setback Tuesday night at the Felix Event Center that knocked the Mustangs out of the conference lead.
A fleeting ascent to the top of the conference standings and into the top 10 of this week’s NAIA Coaches Poll was relatively new territory for The Master’s, a program with just one winning conference campaign since 2005 and no national tournament appearances since joining the GSAC in 2002. Still, the Mustangs certainly had Azusa Pacific’s number despite their own struggles, winning four of the past six regular-season head-to-head meetings with the Cougars, who own 13 GSAC titles and haven’t finished lower than third in the GSAC since 1991.
Whatever the reason for the consistent stumble Azusa Pacific has taken against The Master’s recently, it mattered little and proved irrelevant to a Cougar squad full of new faces that is only now beginning to get accustomed to the rigors of the GSAC.
Senior forward Anthony Johnson scored a season-high 21 points, grabbing nine rebounds, while junior forward Tyler Monroe added 19 points and 10 rebounds as the Cougars dominated inside with a 38-18 edge in paint scoring. Sophomore point guard Robert Sandoval, one of just two players in an Azusa Pacific uniform with any game experience against The Master’s, also registered a double-double, the first of his career, with 16 points and a season-high 10 assists.
“I really challenged our guys to take a step forward tonight, and they did,” Cougar head coach Justin Leslie said. “Offensively, it was not pretty, and it took us awhile to get going, but I keep saying that if we can find a way to get stops, shots will start falling.”
Leif Karlberg hit a pair of threes to put Azusa Pacific in an early 8-2 hole, but the Cougars absorbed the flurry without so much as a raised eyebrow, methodically wearing down the Mustangs with a bruising combination of post presence with a suffocating perimeter defense. Three solid stretches put together combined for a 46-19 run lasting over 24 minutes of play, resulting in a commanding 21-point (48-27) lead, Azusa Pacific’s largest of the game, with 13:24 to play in the game.
After that, it took The Master’s almost 11 more minutes just to close the gap to less than 15 points, and by that point the Mustangs’ only hope was to foul and hope Azusa Pacific would struggle at the free throw line. However, the Cougars drained 11-of-12 from the charity stripe over the final 2:30 to ice the victory.
“In those runs, we got some great efforts from a lot of different players,” Leslie said. “There was a stretch in that first half where Christian Katuala and Andy Jones really lifted us up defensively. I thought our bench did a fantastic job tonight on the defensive side of the ball, bringing some energy and competing. I know it’s not always reflected in the stats, but I look at those things, and I’m proud of all of them for the way they contributed.”
Following Karlberg’s treys less than a minute apart, the Mustangs went almost seven minutes before scoring another field goal. Mike Harmon scored to snap the scoring drought and pull The Master's within a point at 12-11 with 10:48 left in the half, and Harmon pushed the Mustangs in front, 14-12, with a three-pointer on the next possession.
The lead was short-lived, as Johnson scored on the next two possessions while The Master's went scoreless again for the next six minutes during a 12-0 Cougar run that pushed the lead to double digits for the first time at 24-14 with four minutes left in the half.
“We really felt like we were wearing them down in the first half,” said Johnson, whose previous scoring high this season was 18 points in a Nov. 25 non-conference win over Embry-Riddle (Fla.). “The coaching staff had a great game plan for them, and everybody in practice did a great job getting us prepared for what The Master’s was going to do.”
Azusa Pacific led by nine at the half, 31-22, and after trading baskets to start the second half, Johnson sparked yet another run, this time dropping in a layup in the paint to set off a 15-3 flurry that gave the Cougars their first of three 21-point second-half leads.
“The coaches told Tyler and me that we had to hurt them on the offensive glass,” Johnson said. “I got in a rhythm from that, because as soon as I got some easy buckets and shots started falling, the rim started to look wide open for me.”
Led by the 75-percent shooting efforts up front from Johnson and Monroe, Azusa Pacific finished with a team shooting percentage over 50 percent for the 11th time this season, going 28-for-55 (51 percent). Senior guard Brandon Dunson was the fourth Cougar to score in double figures, contributing 12 points and four rebounds as Azusa Pacific also controlled the boards by a wide margin, out-rebounding the Mustangs, 45-26.
“Going against a higher-ranked team ahead of you in the standings forces you to pull together,” Leslie said. “The challenge now is to do that consistently.”
The Master’s was led by senior guard Anthony Cammon, who leads the GSAC in scoring in conference games and poured in a game-high 24 points. However, the Mustangs’ other two backcourt scoring threats, Karlberg and Devin Dyer, were both held below their season scoring averages of 11 points per game. Karlberg finished with nine points, while Dyer managed to hit just one-of-nine from the field in a three-point, three-rebound, three-turnover performance. Cammon scored 18 of his 24 points in the final 13 minutes, and the only Mustang to join him in double figures was Harmon, who tossed in 14 points off the bench with four three-pointers.
With the win, the Cougars are now 16-4 overall, 6-3 GSAC, as they continue a three-game week with Thursday’s home non-conference matchup with Cal State San Marcos. The Master's fell to 14-6 overall and 6-3 GSAC.
“I like where we’re at, since we are a group that has a lot of guys who are new to the program this year,” Johnson said. “We don’t have the target on our backs, and now that we’ve seen every team in the first half of the conference we know how everybody looks and plays. It’s completely in our hands, and that’s what I love about it. We just have to take it game by game, and hopefully we’ll be able to make some noise.”
The result knocked the Mustangs out of a tie for the conference lead while Azusa Pacific, Concordia, and The Master's are tied for second, one game behind Westmont at the halfway point of the 18-game GSAC schedule.
VIDEO HIGHLIGHTS (by Rob Small)