AZUSA, Calif. -- Junior guard B.J. Porter drained five consecutive three-pointers to lead Azusa Pacific’s second-half explosion, as the NAIA’s No. 11-ranked Cougars kept pace with the Golden State Athletic Conference leaders with a 75-55 win over Fresno Pacific Tuesday night.
Porter scored the last 11 points of a 23-5 run, the last on a deep triple that pushed Azusa Pacific ahead by 23 points (59-36) with 9:03 remaining in the game. Porter finished with 17 points, all in a second half during which the Cougars shot a blistering 67 percent (18-for-27 total and eight-of-12 from three-point range).
With the victory, Azusa Pacific claimed its 20th win of the season, improving to 20-5 overall and 9-4 GSAC while extending the program’s streak of 20-win campaigns to 20 years. In addition, the Cougars kept pace with the GSAC leaderboard, which is led by Westmont and opened the night with four teams tied for second place one game behind the conference leader. Westmont pulled away for a home win over Biola to maintain its one-game lead, while Concordia picked up a road win at The Master’s to reduce the second-place tie to three teams (Concordia, Azusa Pacific, and Point Loma Nazarene) heading into Saturday’s clash between Azusa Pacific and Concordia.
“Some team in the GSAC is going to step up and decide that they want to win it and start asserting itself,” Cougar head coach Justin Leslie said. “It’s not going to be easy, and every game is going to be tough. What we need is to have that singular focus on our next game. Concordia’s going to be in a spot where it’s everything for them just like it is for us. We need to make sure that we go out there and give our best effort.”
After tying or setting its own season-high in turnovers in three consecutive games, Azusa Pacific surrendered its second-lowest total of the season with 10, doing so against one of the GSAC’s best teams at forcing turnovers. The Cougars did so with a punishing inside-out attack, led by Porter’s red-hot shooting stroke combined with junior forward Tyler Monroe’s 21-point, nine-rebound performance inside.
“Taking care of the basketball was huge,” Leslie said. “We had 58 turnovers in our last three games, and 20 in each of the last two, so that was a big focus for us to take care of the ball tonight. We worked a lot on it, and I was really pleased with our execution tonight, because it enabled us to get all those touches in the paint that led to second chance points and quality looks.”
Monroe scored 13 in the first half alone and grabbed eight of his nine boards before halftime, helping Azusa Pacific take control of the game with a 10-0 run to end the first half after Fresno Pacific’s top offensive threat, guard Donte Nicholas, was hit with his third foul of the game with 3:49 left in the opening half. Nicholas left the Sunbirds holding a 23-19 lead, but Monroe scored eight points over the final two minutes of the half to lead the Cougars to a 29-23 halftime lead.
“With Nicholas out of the game, they’re just not as good offensively,” Leslie said. “He’s their dynamic offensive player, so we knew we could get stops. We’ve said since our opening game that when we get stops we can score. In that run to finish the half, Fresno Pacific had no type of comfort level offensively.”
A Nicholas trey opened up the second-half scoring and trimmed the lead down to three points at 29-26, and a pair of Nicholas free throws just over four minutes into the half kept Fresno Pacific within five points at 33-28.
That’s when Porter heated up, taking advantage of the Sunbirds’ attention to Monroe’s presence in the paint to knock down his first three of the game. Nicholas answered with a trey that kept the Sunbirds within five, but senior guard Brandon Dunson nailed a three, then picked Nicholas for a steal and a breakaway dunk that sparked Azusa Pacific’s 23-5 run over a six-and-a-half minute stretch.
“We are far too good defensively to not go out and be disruptive on that side of the ball,” said Leslie. “We’re dead last in the league in steals, and we have got to challenge ourselves to consistently be more disruptive. In the second half, we got after them a little bit more, and we played more of our tempo. It was a really comfortable pace and flow of the game in the second half, and it was all in how we defended.”
A Matt Christman three-pointer broke up a 10-0 run that kept the Sunbirds scoreless for nearly four minutes, but Porter promptly went on a three-point binge, drilling a triple over Nicholas for a 51-34 lead before stepping inside the three-point line for a two-point jumper the next Cougar possession. Porter hit threes on each of the next two trips downcourt to cap a run of scores on seven consecutive Azusa Pacific possessions. The run, which gave the Cougars a 59-36 lead with 9:03 to play, finished with 11 consecutive points from Porter, who scored all 17 of his points in a seven-minute second-half stretch.
Monroe, who was 16-of-19 from the field in two games last week, made seven-of-nine Tuesday along with seven-of-eight free throws for his team-high 21 points, and he also registered three blocks. Over the past nine games, Monroe is averaging 16.8 points a game while shooting 73 percent from the field and 80 percent from the free throw line. Dunson and Justin Haynes each scored eight points, and senior forward Anthony Johnson added seven.
Nicholas finished with a game-high 23 points, scoring 19 of the Sunbirds’ 32 second-half points, while Christman was the only other double-digit scorer for Fresno Pacific, which has now dropped back-to-back games by a margin of 20-plus points. The Sunbirds have lost seven straight and eight of their last nine since hitting nine-of-12 three-pointers in the first half of a 74-54 win over Azusa Pacific when the teams met in Fresno Jan. 10.
“I was very nervous going into this game,” Leslie said. “I knew defensively they were a tough matchup for us, because to get a rhythm against that zone is something we haven’t done over the years. To have some wiggle room while you’re figuring out the zone, without them bombing threes on us, made it a lot easier.”
Azusa Pacific faces a difficult road test Saturday, visiting two-time defending GSAC champion Concordia at CU Arena in Irvine. The Cougars won the first meeting between the teams, claiming an 85-66 win at home that knocked the Eagles out of a share of the conference lead.
VIDEO HIGHLIGHTS (filmed & edited by Rob Small)