EL CAJON, Calif. -- With its entire season on life support after humbling back-to-back double-digit defeats, Azusa Pacific jolted back to life with a 14-0 run late in the second half as the Cougars rallied for an 82-76 win over San Diego Christian Saturday night in El Cajon.
Sophomore point guard Robert Sandoval scored all 11 of his points in the second half, including a pair of three-pointers during the 14-point swing that turned a 66-58 deficit into a six-point edge for Azusa Pacific with five minutes left in the game.
San Diego Christian took less than a minute to tie the game back up, thanks to Johnny Delbene’s three-point play which was followed by a Delbene trey with 4:13 left that tied the game at 72-72. After the teams traded baskets, Tim Sanders launched an 18-foot prayer off one foot with the shot clock about to expire that found nothing but net to give the Hawks a 76-74 lead with 2:45 remaining.
“We’ve taken teams’ best shots and haven’t responded well, so to take their best shot tonight and stay the course and answer by playing harder made it that much more gratifying,” Cougar head coach Justin Leslie said.
On the ensuing possession, senior guard Justin Haynes put back his own miss to tie the game at 76-all, and Azusa Pacific moved in front in the final minute on a pair of Tyler Monroe free throws as the Cougars went six-of-six from the line in the final minute to seal the victory. After Sanders’ bucket with 2:45 left, the Hawks didn’t score again, missing five three-pointers and a free throw down the stretch.
San Diego Christian led by as many as 13 points in the second half, and the Hawks hit five of their first six three-point attempts and shot 56 percent (15-for-27) from the floor in the first half to take a 41-32 halftime lead. Raphael Rodriguez scored 15 of his game-high 25 in the first half, hitting six-of-eight shots including three-of-four treys, although he missed all six of his second-half three-point attempts. Delbene added 21 points for San Diego Christian, which cooled off after halftime and missed 10 of 12 second-half three-pointers.
“Going into halftime was tough, and I didn’t sugarcoat it,” Leslie said. “I told them, ‘your back is against the wall, this is your season, and we have to lay out everything we have and just compete. It was a difficult halftime to have to swallow that reality and realize how important the second half was, but the way they responded also made it more gratifying.”
The Cougars had five players in double figures, and two others scored at least eight. Senior guard Brandon Dunson scored 11 points and dished out a game-high nine assists, and Azusa Pacific regrouped from an eight-turnover first half that led to 19 San Diego Christian points off turnovers by giving the ball away only twice in the second half. The 10 turnovers is the second-lowest in a game this season for the Cougars.
Perhaps more significant than the manner in which the Cougars snapped their first losing streak of the year was the location of their resurgence - on the road. Azusa Pacific had lost four of its past five road games in the Golden State Athletic Conference before Saturday's win, which kept the Cougars tied for third in the GSAC, just a game behind second-place Point Loma Nazarene.
“Our backs are against the wall, and we know it,” Leslie said. “If we want a home game in the conference tournament and have any chance at making the national tournament, we have to win these games. There’s a huge amount of pressure, and we have to deliver – we have got to find a way to go on the road and play our best game.”
With the win, Azusa Pacific improves to 21-7 overall, 10-6 GSAC, and the Cougars are back on the road Tuesday to take on The Master's College in Santa Clarita before wrapping up the regular season at home against Westmont on Saturday, Feb. 25.