LA MIRADA, Calif. -- Azusa Pacific has all year to cultivate new rivalries in its first season as a member of the NCAA Division II Pacific West Conference. But first, the youngest set of Cougars in over two decades picked up their own first-hand experience of the program’s traditional rivalry with Biola with a 71-64 victory over the Eagles in a non-conference setting in front of a spirited crowd of 2,138.
Sophomore guard Troy Leaf scored 10 of his 15 points in the second half, hitting four-of-seven three-pointers in his first-ever game against Biola. Leaf and the other seven first-time participants on the Cougars’ side of the rivalry helped set the tone from the opening tip with a physical defense and up-tempo offense that left the Eagles struggling all night just to keep pace.
“This was an unbelievable atmosphere,” Leaf said. “I was excited to get out here and play, but when it comes down to it, it’s forty minutes of basketball, and I can be comfortable with that. We knew they would play a physical, packed-in style of defense, so we knew that if we dictated the way the game was going to be played early, we could get the pace going in our favor.”
Biola led just once, by only one point and lasting all of eight seconds, before Kevin Stafford’s basket in transition gave Azusa Pacific a 6-5 lead less than three minutes into the game. The Cougars never trailed again, growing the lead to a seven-point halftime edge at 30-23 and expanding the margin to 11 points at 38-27 within the first four minutes of the second half.
“We were fortunate in that this Biola team is very similar in style of play to Point Loma,” said Leslie, who saw his team rally for a 51-50 win on the road at Point Loma last week in the Cougars’ Pacific West Conference opener. “We essentially had two weeks to build this progression up in terms of how we were going to attack them defensively to force our type of tempo. This team is a smart team, they’re willing to listen, and we did a lot of communicating about what they could expect from a familiar rivalry game like this where we had an idea what to expect. We were able to talk them through those details of the intangibles, so they weren’t caught off-guard.”
Azusa Pacific never let up, answering every Biola surge and often doing so with a back-breaking three-pointer. When Mike Kurtz cut the lead to 32-26 just two minutes into the second half, the Cougars kept the ensuing possession alive with three offensive rebounds before Leaf nailed a three that pushed the lead into double-digits at 36-26. After Cody Wittick trimmed the lead all the way down to three with an impressive sequence of a three-pointer, steal, and layup, senior guard B.J. Porter silenced the Biola faithful with a three-point bomb that padded the lead back to 42-36 with 13:24 remaining.
At the 10-minute mark, Biola got within six points on a Kyle Bailey layup, only to have Leaf drop in another triple just 20 seconds later to widen the lead to 51-42. Two minutes later, consecutive baskets for David Cline pulled the Eagles back within five, only to be answered by a Tyler Goldston three-pointer that made it 54-46 with eight minutes to play. Porter, Leaf, and Goldston each hit at least one more three-pointer down the stretch that sent the Cougars’ lead into double digits, the last coming from Goldston to give Azusa Pacific a 70-57 lead, its largest of the game, with 1:35 to play.
Biola scored seven straight points to cut the lead to 70-64, although less than 30 seconds remained when the Eagles knocked the lead back into single digits. Leaf hit the front end of a pair of free throws to end the Biola run and provide the final seven-point margin of victory.
Azusa Pacific got 12 players into the game, with 10 players logging at least 10 minutes of playing time. Eight of the 12 Cougars who played were first-timers to the Biola rivalry, and the four who had prior experience (Porter, Stafford, Andy Jones, and Christian Katuala) combined to score just two points last year in Azusa Pacific’s visit to Biola.
“We’ve been playing all our games this year with media timeouts, and we’ve been getting used to catching our breath during those breaks,” said Leslie, who didn’t spend his first timeout until less than five minutes remained in the game. “I told the team that subs were going to come a lot quicker than normal, and we rotated lots of guys through very quickly. As a result, we were able to sustain our energy, and the tale of the tape in that respect was that we shot better from three-points than at the free throw line because our legs were fresh.”
Jones, who scored the only two points among that quartet last year, scored five points this time around while hauling in a career-high 11 rebounds. Porter, who went scoreless and fouled out in last year’s visit to La Mirada, finished with 14 points while going three-for-three (all from beyond the three-point arc) in the second half of Friday’s victory. Katuala collected three points and six rebounds while providing a tough physical presence, and Stafford knocked down a pair of first-half threes and finished with nine points.
“The games we’ve played so far have been more physical than maybe any five games we’ve played consecutively in our history,” said Leslie, whose first five games this season all came against NCAA Division II competition. “I challenged the team before the game that this was our opportunity to go out there and finally be the physical aggressors, to go be that team that knocks somebody else off their spots. It was fun to see that message resonate with them.”
Goldston, who did not play against Biola last year, finished with nine points, and freshman forward Will Ward contributed with 10 points and five rebounds. Redshirt freshman Sharif Watson was the Cougars’ defensive stats leader with a block and three steals to go with his six points and five boards.
Although it shot just 31 percent (4-for-13) from the free throw line, Azusa Pacific more than made up for it with its deadly accuracy from long range along with a significant 46-34 rebounding edge. That margin on the boards contributed to a 16-7 advantage in second-chance points, and the deep Cougar bench accounted for 28 points compared to just eight points for the Biola reserves.
“Some guys stepped up off the bench and really made some plays that we needed,” Leaf said. “It was really good to see those guys step up and let loose.”
The Eagles were led by Cline, who scored 10 of his game-high 16 points in the second half after he sat the final 12 minutes of the first half after he picked up two quick fouls. Zack Zaragoza added 13 points, and Wittick and Cody Anderson each tallied 10 points. Kurtz, a 7-foot, 210-pound sophomore center, added seven points to go with four blocks and a game-high 13 rebounds. Biola also struggled at the free throw line, hitting just four-of-12 (33 percent) while hitting 26-of-62 (42 percent) from the field.
With the victory, Azusa Pacific improves to 4-2 overall, while Biola drops to 7-4 on the year. The Cougars are off next week for finals, returning to the court for a pair of games at Citizens Business Bank Arena in Ontario as part of the Dec. 17-18 Coyote Holiday Classic hosted by Cal State San Bernardino.