AZUSA, Calif. -- Azusa Pacific bounced back from a tough loss earlier in the week exactly how you would hope, taking control of the game with a dominant first half en route to an 82-71 win over Vanguard Friday night.
The NAIA’s No. 7-ranked Cougars shot an impressive 56 percent (30-for-54) from the field, dominated the boards by a 41-28 margin, and trailed only once in the game for just a single possession. Junior forward Tyler Monroe led the way, hitting 10-of-11 shots from the field to score a game-high 24 points while pulling down another game-high with 13 rebounds, while senior guards Brandon Dunson and Justin Haynes combined for 29 points on nine-of-13 shooting.
“We made a much more concerted effort to get the ball inside tonight, which we knew we needed to do in order to be successful,” Cougar head coach Justin Leslie said. “We had to pound them on the boards and pound them in the paint.”
The Cougars trailed for only one possession all night, a one-point deficit in the opening moments in the first half that lasted barely 30 seconds. Sophomore point guard Robert Sandoval scored on a short jumper, the first two of 46 points in the paint for Azusa Pacific, which later used a 16-6 run to close out the first half for a 43-28 halftime advantage. A Dunson three-pointer answered Vanguard's bucket to open the second half, sparking a 10-2 run that pushed the lead beyond 20 points less than four minutes into the second half.
It was an appropriate response to a tough defeat, and it was hardly different than the way Azusa Pacific had responded to all of its previous losses this season. The Cougars are now 5-0 in games immediately following a loss. Four of those bounce-back wins have come at home, where Azusa Pacific has compiled an impressive 15-1 record on the season.
“It’s good to be home, because one of the constants for us this year is that we’ve responded and made runs consistently at home this year,” Leslie said. “On the road, it’s been a different story so far, and we haven’t been as consistent as we need to be. The challenge is to get a little bit tougher.”
Despite all the positives from the evening, however, it only solidified the reputation the Cougars have developed as a team loaded with talent that can’t seem to turn in its best effort away from the comforts of home.
For the third straight game, Azusa Pacific either tied or set its season-high in turnovers, finishing with 20 giveaways (10 in each half). Vanguard only managed to cash in 13 points off those 20 turnovers, however, including only four in the first half. Were it not for the Lions’ 24 percent (six-for-25) three-point shooting, the game could have gotten much more interesting down the stretch.
“We didn’t play inside nearly as well in the second half,” Leslie said. “When they went to that zone, we settled for jump shots and didn’t go to the boards very well. They mixed up their defense a little bit, and we didn’t handle it well at all. Robert and Brandon combined for eight turnovers, which is very uncharacteristic of them, and we can’t let that continue.”
After a Monroe basket gave Azusa Pacific a 22-point lead, its largest of the game, at 67-45 with 8:34 to play, Vanguard quickly cut the lead in half. A Chris Pynch three-pointer got the 11-0 burst started, a run that took less than two minutes to develop as the Lions pulled to within 67-56 with 6:29 left in the game. A Dunson trey was followed by another Monroe bucket, and although Vanguard cut the margin to 10 points three more times in the final three minutes, the Cougars maintained the double-digit lead through the end of the game.
“We had a couple lapses in the second half where we forgot to defend, and those are the types of possessions on the road that are coming back to bite us,” Leslie said. “My challenge to the team after the game was to take those moments out of our games. I don’t feel that we’re playing poorly, but we’re directly giving up points in those situations, and we’re not good enough to do that.”
Vanguard was led by 18 points from Christopher Raybon, who scored half his points from the free throw line while shooting four-of-15 from the field. Taylor Kelly added 16 points, and Pynch added 12, while Christopher Kupets was limited to nine points, which included a deep three-point bomb in the opening minute that gave Vanguard its only lead of the game.
Azusa Pacific had three in double figures (Monroe, Dunson, and Haynes), and senior forward Anthony Johnson turned in the best all-around performance, scoring seven points with six rebounds and a game-high eight assists along with one of the Cougars’ three blocked shots.
With the win, Azusa Pacific improves to 19-5 overall, 8-4 GSAC, while Vanguard falls to 13-10 overall, 5-7 GSAC. Up next for Azusa Pacific is a Tuesday, Feb. 7 matchup with Fresno Pacific at home, where the Cougars are 15-1 on the season.
VIDEO HIGHLIGHTS (filmed and edited by Rob Small)