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AZUSA, Calif. -- The script may change with each passing game in Azusa Pacific’s long, heated rivalry with Westmont, but the ending is staying the same.
There have been blowouts and close calls, improbable comebacks and unlikely heroes, but for the second straight season, the Cougars sent another set of Westmont seniors out of college basketball without ever tasting a win over Azusa Pacific. Thursday’s 57-54 first-round win in the Golden State Athletic Conference Postseason Tournament extended Azusa Pacific’s streak against Westmont to 14 consecutive wins dating back to 2007, while also keeping the Warriors winless in postseason play since 2003.
“We’ve had a few good bounces go our way over that stretch, but Westmont presents a unique challenge to Azusa Pacific in the way they play in that it’s a mind game,” Cougar head coach Justin Leslie said. “They change their defenses, and they’re very methodical about their play calls, just trying to get a leg up on you. Against a team like Westmont who plays that type of game, you can lay out in the scouting report that this is a chance to show what a complete player you are in how you can think the game and execute at both ends of the floor. It’s very motivating to be able to go play against a team like that because there’s a lot of ways to challenge yourself.”
With the win, Azusa Pacific improves to 24-7 and has won four in a row heading into Saturday’s GSAC semifinals, where the Cougars will take on the conference’s regular-season champion Concordia. Westmont finishes the year with a 19-9 record after dropping five of its final six games.
In the final game between long-time conference rivals, the Cougars waited until the bitter end to extend Westmont’s postseason drought, edging back in front for the last of six lead changes in the game when All-GSAC sophomore point guard Robert Sandoval drove through the lane to hit the game-winning basket over Westmont’s All-GSAC guard Preston Branson with eight seconds left.
“Coach put the ball in my hands and trusted me, and my teammates did a great job spacing the floor,” Sandoval said. “As soon as I saw a little edge, I was able to counter his defense and get the layup. ”
The Cougars trailed, 54-53, when they took over the final possession with 24 seconds remaining, and Sandoval made his move past Branson as the clock approached 10 seconds. His running jumper banked off the glass and dropped neatly through the net for the last of his nine points, giving Azusa Pacific its first lead since midway through the second half.
“It took me a long time to figure out what was actually going to work consistently, and it wasn’t until those last two timeouts when I knew we had the play call that would work,” said Leslie, who has never lost to Westmont in five years as Azusa Pacific's head coach. “Westmont had a good game plan – they made us think and did not let us get comfortable, and it just came down to players making plays at the end. Robert made me look like a good coach, because we just gave him the ball and got out of the way.”
Niko Brooks drove the length of the floor and missed a wild layup with two seconds left, which was rebounded by the Cougars’ other All-GSAC guard, senior Brandon Dunson, and he knocked down a pair of free throws with 1.8 seconds remaining to seal the victory.
Azusa Pacific trailed by five within the last four minutes, when senior guard Justin Haynes converted a three-point play when he was fouled while knocking down a jumper in the paint that cut Westmont’s lead to 52-50 with 3:46 left.
The Warriors still led by four before Dunson made one-of-two free throws with 3:10 left and rebounded a three-point miss at the other end. That allowed Sandoval to use the next possession to get into the lane and draw a double team that left junior forward Tyler Monroe wide open for an easy slam that pulled the Cougars to within 54-53 with 2:12 to play.
“Robert was just zoned in, and he’s really leading the team,” Monroe said. “I couldn’t have done anything I did tonight without everybody around me and Robert passing the ball so well. As soon as he drove, I knew he was coming to me because I was open, and that’s because of the trust we’re building now.”
It was also Monroe, who posted game-highs of 20 points and nine rebounds, who pulled down the board on a Jordan Sachs miss with 29 seconds left to set up Sandoval’s last-second heroics.
“Tyler’s dunk was huge,” Sandoval said. “He and I have this connection now, where he knows when I’m going to pass him the ball. I look away, and he just knows it’s coming. All I had to do was split the defenders and drag his man up, and it was done.”
The Cougars had led by as many as 10 points early in the second half, when they scored the first nine points after taking a 26-25 halftime lead. Combined with Sandoval’s fadeaway baseline jumper over Westmont’s 6-foot-7 All-GSAC forward C.J. Miller on the final possession of the first half, Azusa Pacific scored 12 straight to take a 35-25 lead with 16:03 remaining in the game. During that run, Sandoval hit a three-pointer on the opening second-half possession, knocked down another jumper in the paint, and he picked Branson for a steal at the other end that led to a Dunson breakaway dunk that capped the run.
“This was a great rivalry, and it’s nasty playing against them,” Sandoval said. “As a player, you hear about things from the past, between coaches and between players, and the coaches fired us up. We knew Westmont had their backs against the wall for their season, and we knew they were going to come out and give everything they had. We just tried to match that intensity, and any little grab or any little push just intensified it.”
Westmont regrouped with a timeout and began chipping away at the lead with a 13-2 run over a stretch of nearly six minutes, with Branson turning a steal into an easy layup that pushed the Warriors back in front, 38-37, with 11:26 to play. Anthony Johnson’s trey with 10:18 left snapped the Cougars out of their scoring drought, but Westmont put together a 7-0 run for a 48-44 lead with seven minutes remaining.
“What it boils down to is that this is their season on the line,” Leslie said. “If they lose this game, they’re saying goodbye to their seniors in the locker room, and they’re having those moments that happen only at the end of the year. It’s survival mode, so when you get into those situations, you have to be able to match or exceed that level of intensity, and you have to meet it with poise. You can’t just let that aggressiveness and intensity take over and have you do uncharacteristic things.”
Monroe’s nine-rebound effort included five of the Cougars’ 11 offensive rebounds, and it guided Azusa Pacific to a 39-30 edge on the boards. Monroe was eight-of-13 from the field, including a first-half three-pointer, and freshman Kevin Stafford kept the Cougars afloat in the first half with eight points in nine minutes of action off the bench. In addition to scoring nine, Sandoval added five rebounds and five assists.
“The last game, they doubled and tripled me, so I got back to the drawing board and watched a lot of film to watch where they were coming from and where I could be more effective,” Monroe said. “I wanted to hit that high post a lot more, and I made some shots I didn’t make the last game. I was able to get going early, and that made a big difference.”
Westmont was led by Branson’s 12 points, although he was just four-of-11 from the field and committed a game-high four turnovers. Miller, who scored 18 points when the teams played last week in the final game of the regular season, was held to eight points but contributed eight rebounds and three blocks for the Warriors. Marcus Farrand, who didn’t play in last week’s game, was a perfect five-of-five from the field, scoring 11 points in 15 minutes of action off the bench.
HIGHLIGHT VIDEO (filmed & edited by Rob Small)