ONTARIO, Calif. -- Christmas may still be yet a week away, but Azusa Pacific had the giving spirit Tuesday night in the final game of the two-day Coyote Holiday Classic. Unfortunately, it was possessions the Cougars were giving away, with 11 second-half turnovers allowing Cal State San Bernardino to rally from 13 points down and steal an 86-82 win at Citizens Business Bank Arena in Ontario.
Despite the second-half lapse, there were plenty of bright spots for Azusa Pacific in an otherwise well-played game. Sophomore guard Troy Leaf matched his season-high with 30 points, and sophomore guard Kevin Stafford scored a career-high 18 while hitting four-of-five first-half three-pointers. The Cougars shot 50 percent from the field, 48 percent from three-point range, and 73 percent from the free throw line, and they held their own on the boards against a large, physical Coyote front line.
Yet for all Azusa Pacific did right, it gave up its entire 12-point halftime advantage in second-half points off turnovers. Three turnovers came during a 14-1 Coyote run that tied the game at 53-53 with 12:17 to play in the game, and later in the half Azusa Pacific turned the ball over on four consecutive trips down the floor. All four turnovers led directly to points during an 11-0 run that resulted in Cal State San Bernardino’s largest lead of the game, a 10-point advantage for Cal State San Bernardino at 71-61 with 5:30 left in the game.
“We shot 50 percent for the game, and we had 11 turnovers in the second half. If we had just matched our (six) first-half turnovers, that’s five more possessions with us shooting 50 percent, and that’s the difference between us winning and losing the game,” Leslie said. “We played well enough to win, but as I shared with the team, at this level, ‘good enough’ isn’t good enough. We need to understand what it takes to close games out, handle adversity, and be tough.”
After the Coyotes pushed the lead to 10 points, Leaf answered with a three-pointer, one of five he hit in the game to help lead Azusa Pacific back from a double-digit deficit. Leaf scored 12 of the Cougars’ 16 points over a three-minute stretch that set up senior guard B.J. Porter’s game-tying trey that knotted the score at 80-80 with just 1:16 to play. Freshman forward Will Ward scored four points and assisted another basket during that 19-9 run.
“I was really impressed with how Will commanded attention. We were running things to get the ball inside, and he’s a very good passer out of the post,” Leslie said. “We got layups from him, and we got kick-out threes off of his action. It was a good stretch of execution, and the team did a good job of staying poised and handling the pressure to get it back to where we wanted it.”
Lacy Haddock scored the go-ahead bucket on the ensuing possession, and he and Brian Goins each knocked down one-of-two free throws to push the Coyotes in front, 84-80, with 11 seconds to play. Sophomore guard Tyler Goldston drove the length of the floor for a quick layup that trimmed the margin to 84-82 with five seconds left, but Haddock knocked down his next two free throws to provide the final four-point margin.
“We challenged them to come out and play hard today and compete better, and they certainly did,” Leslie said. “We played well enough to win, but we turned the ball over and lost poise. We got a little rattled there in the middle of the second half when they made a run, but I was proud that we fought back after that. We gave ourselves a chance to win it; you just have to give Cal State San Bernardino credit for the way they finished the game.”
Haddock led the way offensively for the Coyotes with 23 points to go with seven rebounds and six assists, and Jamari Simmons hit seven-of-nine from the field to finish with 19 points. Brian Goins added 18 points, four assists, and a game-high three steals.
Azusa Pacific finished with a slight rebounding edge, 33-32, led by Ward’s seven boards. Along with season- and career-high scoring totals for both Leaf and Stafford, the Cougars got another 12 points from senior guard B.J. Porter, who drilled the game-tying three-pointer with 1:16 to play that tied the game at 80-80.
With the loss, Azusa Pacific has suffered back-to-back defeats for the first time this season to fall to 4-4, while Cal State San Bernardino ran its winning streak to five games to improve to 5-1 overall. The Cougars return to game action after New Year’s, hosting South Dakota School of Mines on Wednesday, Jan. 2.