VIDEO HIGHLIGHTS AT END OF STORY
AZUSA, Calif. -- For the second time this season, Azusa Pacific donned orange throwback uniforms to honor the Cougars’ basketball tradition, and with a number of the program’s first basketball alumni in attendance, the current version certainly did their part to live up to the lofty expectations.
Behind the continued hot shooting hand of junior guard B.J. Porter, who tied his season-high with five three-pointers, the NAIA’s No. 24-ranked Azusa Pacific wrapped up the regular season with a 77-69 win over No. 21-ranked Westmont. The victory clinched a first-round home game in the upcoming Golden State Athletic Conference tournament, which brings Westmont back to the Felix Event Center for another visit.
“We’re in the 30th game of the year, so they know us as well as we know them,” Cougar head coach Justin Leslie said. “As much as I’d like to say there were some great X-and-O adjustments, it all comes down to 50-50 balls, hustle plays, and getting more shots up because you’ve taken care of the basketball. It’s certainly going to be tough to end their season, but that’s what we need to work for. That’s postseason basketball – it’s going to be tough no matter who we play, and we just have to be ready.”
Porter hit four three-pointers in the first half alone, including three that sparked a 15-2 run midway through the first half. That flurry turned the Cougars’ largest deficit, a 19-11 Westmont advantage, into a five-point lead just three minutes later at 26-21, and Azusa Pacific never trailed again.
“Over our last three games, B.J. has absolutely stepped up and given us that explosiveness from the perimeter that we’ve been lacking,” Leslie said. “We’ve been struggling to score all year, and he’s been a huge spark. He’s been getting extra work in every day, and he’s playing with a lot of confidence. He stayed the course and was really coachable, letting us work with him on understanding what his spots are, and now he’s gotten himself into a great groove.”
The Cougars led by as many as 11 points in the second half, and an Anthony Johnson trey put Azusa Pacific in front by 10, 67-57, with three minutes to play. However, Westmont pulled to within two points with an 8-0 run, closing to within 67-65 with 1:08 to play before Johnson and Sandoval each knocked down a pair of free throws that extended the margin to a six-point cushion with 53 seconds left. Westmont never got closer than four points the rest of the way.
Porter, who had 14 points at halftime, hit his only second-half field-goal attempt, which was a three-pointer that gave the Cougars their first double-digit lead of the game at 60-49 with 8:23 to play. He also sank a pair of free throws to finish with 19 points, while senior guard Brandon Dunson scored a team-high 20 points with six rebounds and six assists. Johnson finished with 15 points and a team-high seven rebounds.
“I’m finally healthy, so I’ve been feeling more comfortable and feel more like myself, and that’s allowed me to help the team by knocking down some shots,” Porter said. “One thing Coach told us early in the year is that we would take some lumps early in the year. A lot of teams might reach their peak in the middle of the year, but we were a new team, and we wanted to get better going towards March. Obviously in the last week, we’ve gotten better, and we want to make sure we keep getting better as a team.”
Dunson threw down a pair of dunks as part of his 20-point effort, combining that with three treys and three free throws. With six minutes to play in the first half, Dunson exploded through the lane for a two-handed slam over C.J. Miller, giving the Cougars a 28-24 lead. In the second half, he had more time to prepare, picking Lucas Miller for a steal and racing uncontested for a fast-break dunk that pushed the lead to eight points at 46-38 with 15:30 left in the game.
“It’s getting to the point in the season where we’ve faced a lot of adversity, and I think everything is finally starting to click for us,” Dunson said. “The last week or two, practice has been much more intense, and we feel like we’re a late-blooming team. Now that it’s starting to click, we’re just starting to scratch our potential and work towards the team we can be.”
Azusa Pacific was one shot under a 50 percent shooting night, finishing 25-for-51 (49 percent), while hitting a season-high 11-of-22 from three-point range. The Cougars tied their second-lowest turnover total with only 10 giveaways, which led to only nine Westmont points off turnovers, and for the third straight game they generated at least 20 free throw attempts, shooting 16-for-20 (80 percent) from the charity stripe.
“The thing I was most encouraged about this week in practice was how physical and intense it was,” Leslie said. “When you’re the aggressor and you’re the more physical team on the court, you tend to get the defense on their heels. You take care of the ball a little better, and you get to the foul line. When you’re the aggressor, you’re taking the shots that are your shots, and that tough, aggressive mindset was huge for us.”
Westmont was led by Preston Branson’s 24-point effort, which included 19 second-half points. C.J. Miller finished with 18 points, although he scored 12 of them in the game’s first six minutes and didn’t score in the second half until sinking a pair of free throws with 3:39 remaining in the game. Miller attempted only one shot from the field after halftime, and he collected a team-high seven rebounds.
With the win, Azusa Pacific wraps up the regular season with a 23-7 overall record and finishes in a three-way tie for second place in the GSAC with Biola and Point Loma Nazarene, who all finished 12-6 in conference play. Westmont, which lost four of five to close out the regular season, drops to 19-8 overall and finished in fifth place in the GSAC with an 11-7 league record.
VIDEO HIGHLIGHTS (filmed & edited by Rob Small)