SAN DIEGO, Calif. -- Azusa Pacific’s first-ever Pacific West Conference victory was a thing of beauty.
Sure, there were imperfections in the Cougars’ 51-50 win over Point Loma Saturday, but once the turnovers, missed shots, and missed opportunities are gently wiped away, what’s left is a hard-fought win for a young team in a tough road environment, which makes it a victory to treasure.
Junior forward Christian Katuala led the way, scoring nine of his game-high 13 points in the second half, and sophomore guard Troy Leaf knocked down a pair of free throws with 4.5 seconds left to lift the Cougars to the one-point win over Point Loma, which becomes the fourth consecutive time away from Azusa that the teams have played each other to within two points in regulation.
“This is a big win for us because it’s our first conference game, and how you perform in your conference is ultimately how you dictate your future success in terms of qualification down the line,” Cougar head coach Justin Leslie said. “When you can get a win on the road, especially against a good team like Point Loma, it’s encouraging. Winning on the road is going to be critically important to developing a mentality that we’ll be able to do that in the PacWest.”
Azusa Pacific’s three leading scorers (Leaf, B.J. Porter, and Will Ward) were held to a combined 13 points, but Katuala led a trio of others who turned in the type of blue-collar performances that kept Point Loma within reach down the stretch. Two of Katuala's second-half baskets pushed the Cougars into the lead twice in the final six minutes, and sophomore forward Andy Jones added 12 points and a game-high eight rebounds while freshman guard Clay Ragsdale came off the bench to provide 10 points and two assists without a turnover. Jones and Ragsdale’s scoring totals were both season-highs, and Katuala was just two points off his own season-best.
“Christian absolutely earned his points, because he worked hard to get seals offensively and he made some of his best poised moves around the basket. Andy got five offensive rebounds and had the desire out there, and he got himself to the foul line,” Leslie said. “For those two, it was their heart and desire to go out there and make that extra effort. Everyone on this team is going to have an opportunity to step up at different times. When we really picked our energy up midway through the second half, Christian and Andy were fantastic in that stretch. Defensively, they were all over the place, and offensively they were a very physical presence.”
Leaf finished with six points, scoring his final pair at the free throw line when A.J. Ussery committed a reach-in foul with 4.5 seconds left as Leaf brought the ball up the court immediately following Todd Campbell’s go-ahead tip-in with 10 seconds to play in regulation.
Azusa Pacific jumped out to an early eight-point lead at 14-6 on a Ragsdale three-pointer, and a pair of Jones free throws with just over 11 minutes left in the first half gave the Cougars an 18-11 edge. However, Azusa Pacific went cold, going scoreless over the next seven-plus minutes to allow Point Loma to rally and eventually take a 24-21 halftime lead. The Sea Lions also scored 10 of the first 14 points of the second half, taking a 34-25 lead with 16:34 remaining in the game.
“In the first half, we absolutely got what we wanted. They’ve been struggling offensively, and we changed up our defenses to get them out of their rhythm,” Leslie said. “The problem was that we didn’t score enough. That was our opportunity to pull away and create some separation and we missed it. They got physical, and they can be a tough team to score on. In the second half, we were playing very tentative and timid. So far this year, we had been coming out in the second half pretty aggressive, but we weren’t at all this time.”
Katuala hit a pair of free throws to spark a 9-1 run over a three-minute stretch, cutting the deficit to 35-34 with 11:55 to play. Each team led by four points only once from that point on, and Katuala gave the Cougars their first second-half lead when he backed down his defender for a turnaround jumper in the key for a 42-41 lead with 5:51 remaining.
“Psychologically, it was big to get a lead and get some breathing room,” Leslie said. “One of the things with this team is that it’s going to create ways to score baskets. I trust that they’re only going to get better, understand each other better, and develop a better feel for each other.”
After Point Loma regained the lead with just over three minutes left, Katuala again worked his way into the paint for another two points that reclaimed a one-point margin at 46-45 with 2:39 to play. Jones added another two in the paint, followed by one-of-two free throws from Katuala, giving the Cougars a 49-45 lead with 1:42 left, but Campbell answered with a three-pointer on the ensuing possession before scoring the go-ahead two on a tipped-in miss with 10 seconds remaining.
Azusa Pacific hit just three-of-15 three-pointers in the game, but Point Loma missed seven-of-11 at the free throw line while the Cougars turned the Sea Lions’ 19 turnovers into a 26-9 edge in points off turnovers. Azusa Pacific also posted a 22-14 edge in scoring in the paint, although neither team shot over 40 percent from the field.
With the win, Azusa Pacific improves to 3-2 overall, 1-0 in PacWest play, while Point Loma drops to 2-4 overall, 0-1 PacWest. The Cougars return to action with a Friday, Dec. 7 visit to Biola in a non-conference clash.