FULLERTON, Calif. -- Azusa Pacific used a dominant first-half performance to build up a giant lead that held up to Hope International’s spirited second-half rally, and the NAIA’s No. 16-ranked Cougars moved into a tie for the Golden State Athletic Conference lead with Saturday’s 61-51 win over the Royals at Cal State Fullerton.
The victory, Azusa Pacific’s 12th in 14 games since suffering a stunning upset at home against this same Hope International team, moved the Cougars into a four-way tie for the conference lead after Westmont suffered its third home loss in GSAC play with an 82-68 defeat against Point Loma Nazarene. At 7-3 in GSAC play, Azusa Pacific shares the lead with Westmont, Concordia, and The Master’s, although it defeated all three of those teams in head-to-head competition during the first round of the 18-game GSAC schedule.
“We’ve put ourselves in a position where we control our destiny, but if there’s anything this first round of GSAC has taught us it’s that we can beat anybody and we can lose to anybody,” Cougar head coach Justin Leslie said. “We have been humbled and knocked down, so we should be able to have a mature mindset and handle our business. We can’t lose sight of our next game, because this league has shown that if we look past anybody, we’re going to get beat.”
Saturday’s game couldn’t have started any better for Azusa Pacific, which held Hope to 13 first-half points on just three made field goals. The Cougars’ focus centered on Hope’s leading scorer Steve Jurich, whose double-double in the season’s first meeting between the teams in December led the Royals to the upset win. This time, however, Jurich managed just one shot and turned the ball over three times in the opening 20 minutes as Azusa Pacific raced to a 32-13 halftime lead.
“We dictated everything they did offensively in the first half,” Leslie said. “We worked really hard on the things we didn’t do the first time we played, and we did it for all 20 minutes. It was a total team effort, where we forced the ball to the right places, rotated well, and communicated well. It was a great performance from all five guys on the floor, and it was really positive to see everybody contribute in that way.”
Senior forward Anthony Johnson, who picked up two quick fouls and only played six minutes in the first half, knocked down back-to-back three-pointers in the first minute and a half of the second to give the Cougars a 23-point lead, its largest of the game, at 38-15 with 18:31 remaining in the game. Johnson finished with 10 points, adding a pair of free throws late to keep the game out of reach.
A Brandon Dunson dunk with 13 minutes to play kept Azusa Pacific’s cushion at 19 points (45-26), but Aaron Woods scored eight points to spark a 12-0 Hope International run that cut the lead down to single digits, 45-38, with 8:14 to play. After Robert Sandoval answered with a layup at the other end to snap five minutes of scoreless offense for the Cougars, Woods set up Jeremy Kilgore for a three-pointer that pulled Hope International within six points, 47-41, with 7:36 remaining.
“Jurich hasn’t played much recently, and he’s the nation’s leading rebounder, so getting him back was a huge boost for them,” Leslie said. “They played really tough, got some turnovers, and scored some points off turnovers. If we had made some more free throws, the margin could have been more comfortable. I give Hope a lot of credit. They showed a ton of heart and didn’t quit despite having their backs to the wall after the first half.”
The teams traded baskets around the six-minute mark, keeping the Royals within six, but that was the closest they got the rest of the game. Azusa Pacific scored five straight points, part of a 9-2 run that pushed the lead back into double-digits with less than two minutes to play. The Cougars missed three-of-four free throws in the final minute before Dunson knocked down a pair with 19 seconds left to provide the final 61-51 margin.
Kilgore finished with a game-high 16 points, while Hope got 13 points from Matt Green along with a 12-point effort off the bench from Woods. Jurich collected 10 rebounds but was just two-of-four from the field for four points, his lowest scoring output of the season.
The Cougars were led by three players in double figures, including 10-point efforts from Johnson and Sandoval, who also dished out five assists. Junior forward Tyler Monroe was the team’s scoring leader, finishing with 13 points, a team-high eight rebounds, as well as three blocked shots, helping Azusa Pacific to a 30-22 edge in scoring in the paint.
With the win, Azusa Pacific improves to 18-4 overall heading into Tuesday’s visit to Biola. Hope International suffered its third straight loss to fall to 9-8 overall, 2-8 GSAC.