AZUSA, Calif. -- Azusa Pacific certainly had a chance to write off Thursday’s non-conference rematch with Cal State San Marcos as meaningless, having no impact on the Cougars’ Golden State Athletic Conference title push and minimal effect on national rankings.
Instead, it chose to take full advantage of an opportunity to take a step forward in its evolution as a GSAC title contender, shooting season-highs of 57 percent (31-of-54) from the field and 50 percent (nine-for-18) from three-point range to sweep the season series with the talented first-year squad from Cal State San Marcos.
“We always want to play a tough schedule, and I knew Jim Saia would put together a good team,” Cougar head coach Justin Leslie said. “There is a risk playing a game in the middle of the GSAC schedule, but I liked it being the first game before we start the second round, because it gets us ready for how we need to prepare for these upcoming games where we’re playing a team again.”
Prior to Thursday night’s win, the most consistent element of Azusa Pacific’s first round of GSAC competition was its wild inconsistency. No other GSAC team can boast the quality of victories the Cougars already have under their belt, with wins over nationally-ranked programs from Westmont, Concordia, and The Master’s. However, Azusa Pacific enters the back half of the 18-game GSAC schedule a game behind conference-leading Westmont due to the subsequent letdown that followed three key wins.
After Tuesday’s impressive win over The Master’s, one could have reasonably expected another letdown, especially against a San Marcos team that earlier this year knocked off two different teams ranked No. 2 in the NAIA at the time.
“We took a step forward against The Master’s (Tuesday), and we took a step back in the first half tonight,” Leslie said. “They had 36 points (in the first half), and 20 of them were points off turnovers.”
For a time, it appeared that another upset was brewing, as Cal State San Marcos scored 20 points off nine Cougar turnovers and shot a blistering 63 percent (15-for-24) from the field in the first half. Only the three-point shooting of Cougar guards Brandon Dunson and B.J. Porter, who each drilled a pair of first-half treys, kept Azusa Pacific within striking distance at halftime, facing a 36-33 deficit at the break.
After surrendering an 8-0 run that gave San Marcos a 15-7 lead, Dunson’s first triple helped stop the run by cutting the lead to 15-12 with 12:05 to play in the first half. Cal State got the lead back to seven points twice in the first half, the last time at 23-16 with 7:01 to play, before a Porter trey with 3:03 left capped a 14-5 run that helped Azusa Pacific regain a lead t surrendered again before halftime.
“I just want to fill my role,” Porter said. “Coach told me before the game that even though I had a bad shooting night the last game, he still had faith in me. When you have a coach and a team like that, you just want to go out there and do the best you can for them.”
In the second half, Azusa Pacific started with a 13-4 run that included an Anthony Johnson three-pointer and finished with a Dunson jumper that pushed the Azusa Pacific lead to 46-40 less than four minutes into the second half.
“We didn’t have the energy that we should have come out with,” Dunson said. “Coach talked to us at halftime and told us we had to have that energy, so we tried to pick it up in the second half.”
Later, after San Marcos had drawn as close as five points and still only trailed by seven (67-60) with 7:24 to play, Azusa Pacific reeled off a 12-2 run in a span of less than three minutes to push its lead into double digits for good. A Monroe slam highlighted the run, which also included three-pointers on consecutive possessions for Porter and Johnson to help push the Cougar lead to 79-62 with 4:28 to play.
“In the first half, we were dominating the game in a negative way by giving the ball up and giving them opportunities to score,” Leslie said. “In the second half, we cleaned that up considerably, and it was about as good a performance in a half as a team I’ve had in a long time. We made good passes that led to high-quality shots, and man, it was fun.”
Azusa Pacific’s 55 points after halftime represented its best scoring half of the season, and leading the charge was a solid all-around performance from a variety of Cougars who combined to shoot a blistering 65 percent (20-for-31) from the field in the second half.
“That was a very good half, and hopefully we can build on it,” Dunson said. “We had a lot of good screens, and we were patient with the ball. When we play together, we’re at our best.”
Dunson, who scored a game-high 20 points with six assists, scored 12 points after halftime, while senior guard Justin Haynes and junior forward Tyler Monroe each scored in double figures in the second half alone, as well. Haynes scored 12 of his 14 points in the second half, adding five rebounds and five assists in the win, and Monroe tallied 14 of his 16 points and five of his six rebounds after halftime, too.
Porter added 17 points, knocking down three treys, and Johnson also cashed in three times from long range to score 15 points with a game-high seven rebounds.
All five Cal State San Marcos starters scored at least nine points, led by 16-point performances from Jamel McGuire and Daniel Redmon. The Cougars’ leading scorer, Tim Steed, who missed the first game of the year between the teams, finished with 12 points and a game-high seven assists.
“That’s a really good team, and I believe they have the level of talent we’ll see at the national tournament,” Leslie said. “That made this a game I was excited for because it would show us a different type of team. It was good to get some different looks at some things we hadn’t been exposed to in a while. For a lot of reasons, this was really a good game for us to play.”
With the win, Azusa Pacific is now 17-4 overall, including nine straight home wins as the Cougars improved to 14-1 at home this season. Cal State San Marcos falls to 13-10 on the year.
Azusa Pacific visits Hope International in a matchup scheduled to start at 8 p.m. at Cal State Fullerton, and the next Cougar home game takes place on Friday, Feb. 3.