SEATTLE, Wash. -- The season-opener will always go down in the books as Azusa Pacific’s first men’s basketball game in its NCAA era, but the Cougars rallied from 16 down against Central Washington in a 102-99 overtime win Friday afternoon at the Sodexo Tip-Off Classic hosted by Seattle Pacific University.
Sophomore guard Troy Leaf scored a team-high 27 points, senior guard B.J. Porter hit five-of-eight three-pointers after halftime in a 24-point performance, and true freshman forward Will Ward scored seven of his 19 points in overtime to help lead Azusa Pacific to the victory.
“In the first half into early second half, it was Troy and Christian Katuala who kept us in the game,” Cougar head coach Justin Leslie said. “As the game went on, B.J. finished strong, and Will got most of his stuff late. Although we came back, we had to work that much harder and make plays on both sides of the ball.”
The Cougars trailed by 14 at halftime, 54-40, and Central Washington scored on its opening second-half possession to push the lead to 56-40. It took the next seven minutes just to trim the deficit to single-digits, but senior guard B.J. Porter hit back-to-back three-pointers to help Azusa Pacific draw even at 76-76 with 5:40 left in regulation.
“When things aren’t going well, basketball players tend to think about what they’re going to do with the ball in their hands, but what they should be thinking about are the plays they can make when the ball is not in their hands,” Leslie said. “On defense, it’s the little things, so I kept trying to make sure they could focus on the little things that they could control. They listened, they stayed the course, and they made some adjustments on the fly, and that was very encouraging to see from such a young team at the start of the year.”
That set up a rollercoaster finish that featured four lead changes in the final four minutes, with Porter nailing two more threes in the final two minutes to keep the Cougars alive. The first pushed Azusa Pacific in front, 83-81, with 1:48 left in the second half, and his second was a “did-you-see-that” off-balance trey on the Cougars’ final second-half possession that tied the game at 86-86 with 19 seconds left. Porter, who went just two-for-11 from the field in the first half, including two-of-eight from three-point range, scored 18 points after halftime including five-of-eight on three-pointers.
“I will never forget this game in my life; it’s certainly up there for me,” said Leslie, who began his 16th season of involvement with Azusa Pacific basketball as either a player or coach with Friday’s season-opener. “Although we came back, we had to work that much harder and make plays on both sides of the ball. My prayer for this team is that they understand what makes them successful and what makes them vulnerable, and I think we saw that all in one game. We saw our vulnerabilities and made the adjustment, so I think this was a big win for this young team.”
Central Washington’s Mark McLaughlin, who finished with a game-high 31 points, missed a three-pointer with time running out, sending the game to overtime. Porter opened the extra period with yet another three-pointer, which was promptly answered by a McLaughlin trey at the other end. The Wildcats moved back in front with four minutes left in overtime on a Brandon Magee putback, but Ward answered with his first two points of overtime to tie the game at 91-91.
The Cougars never trailed again, with Ward knocking down a pair of free throws on the next possession. Central Washington drew even at 94-94 on a Dom Williams three-pointer with two minutes to play, but Leaf and Ward scored on consecutive possessions, with Ward converting a three-point play with under a minute left to give the Cougars a 99-94 edge. McLauglin scored a quick two, but Central Washington was forced to foul Leaf, who knocked down a pair of free throws to push Azusa Pacific over the century mark with a 101-96 advantage. A Wildcat three-pointer as time expired accounted for the final 102-99 margin.
Leaf scored 17 of his 27 points in the first half, and he also posted seven rebounds, nine assists, and a pair of steals to lead the Cougars statistically, but the Azusa Pacific victory was hardly an individual effort. Despite playing in foul trouble, Katuala converted six-of-eight from the field for 12 points, and in the midst of the Cougars’ second-half rally, sophomore forward Andy Jones kept the Cougars’ momentum alive with a crucial block on a Wildcat fast-break opportunity that started with a steal from Jones.
“It was different guys at different times,” Leslie said. “At the start of the second half, Justin Jones got his points, and I thought Clay Ragsdale was huge for us in a couple different spots. Andy didn’t score a point and had a tough go tonight, but his block in the second half was one of those plays where the energy of the game could have changed. We took more charges in this game tonight than we did in any game last season, and it was all of those little plays made it so encouraging and exciting to see in this young team.”
Led by Ward’s presence in the middle, where he also grabbed a team-high nine rebounds, Azusa Pacific edged Central Washington in scoring in the paint, 48-36, although the Wildcats claimed a 53-45 rebounding edge. Magee led the way for CWU, tallying 16 rebounds with his 13 points while McLaughlin led all scorers with 31 points on 12-of-24 shooting from the field.
“Will was very poised, and the pressure didn’t bother him. He made all the right reads,” Leslie said. “He asks such great questions during practice and walkthroughs, which shows that he does a great job preparing himself mentally. Because of that, and from what we’ve seen of him so far in practice, I wasn’t all that surprised to see him play the way he did.”
With the victory, Azusa Pacific has opened the season with a victory 12 of the past 13 years, moving to 1-0 heading into Saturday’s 7 p.m. clash with the Sodexo Classic tournament host, NCAA Division II’s No. 9-ranked Seattle Pacific.