AZUSA, Calif. -- The red-hot Azusa Pacific offense from three days ago screeched to a halt against Point Loma’s conference-leading scoring defense, but the Cougars blocked a season-best nine shots in a 52-43 win Tuesday night at the Felix Event Center to sweep the season series with the Sea Lions and remain unbeaten through three games of Pacific West Conference play.
“It’s conference play, so every team you play is going to be much different,” Cougar head coach Justin Leslie said. “They’re a really hard team to play against, so to go out and get two wins against them is something I’m really pleased with.”
Sophomore guard Troy Leaf scored 21 points and grabbed 10 rebounds, both game-highs, to register his first career double-double, and 6-foot-6 redshirt freshman forward Sharif Watson blocked four shots to lead a defensive effort that threatened to break the Cougars’ single-game record for fewest points allowed in a game before Point Loma scored 10 of its 43 points in the final two minutes of the game.
“Saturday was the type of basketball that everybody wants to play and wants to be seen playing; these kinds of games are the ones that are a little hard to get up and get excited for, but you still have to come out and take care of business,” said Leaf, who hit the game-winning free throws in the Cougars’ 51-50 win at Point Loma on Dec. 1 in the PacWest opener. “We knew we were in for a tough battle. They’re not a pretty team to play, they’re not a fun team to play, but it’s one of those games where you’ve got to go out there and grind it out and find a way to win.”
Less than 72 hours earlier, Azusa Pacific had been virtually unstoppable, knocking down three-pointers at a clip of over 50 percent while scoring 55 second-half points to beat Fresno Pacific going away. However, it took the Cougars nearly seven minutes to score its first two baskets Tuesday night against the best scoring defense in the Pacific West Conference, and neither team hit double-digits in points until freshman forward Will Ward threw down a dunk to break a 9-9 tie with 8:46 remaining in the first half.
“There were times where we’d go four or five minutes without scoring a basket, but defensively we did enough to keep them from scoring in those moments where we were dry,” Leaf said. “Defensively we just stayed together as a team and knew that the offense would come. Even though they’re a tough, physical defensive team, we knew the points would come if we could keep getting stops.”
Although Oivind Lindestad answered with a layup to tie things up at 11-11 with 8:09 left, the Cougars held Point Loma to just a single made shot over the final eight minutes of the first half to take a 20-14 halftime lead. The Sea Lions’ 14 first-half points barely edged past the Cougar record for fewest points allowed in a half (13), and Azusa Pacific took a 45-33 lead into the final two minutes of the game to threaten the record for fewest points allowed in a game (33), which was set in 1980 before the shot-clock was introduced into college basketball.
Point Loma scored 10 points in the final 1:44 to avoid entering the Cougar record books, although it did end up registering as the fewest points ever allowed in a conference game by Azusa Pacific. In addition, it also becomes the lowest combined scoring game (95 combined points) for the Cougars in the shot-clock era.
“We turned the ball over 16 times in a low-possession game, which is not excusable,” Leslie said. “We did not do a very good job taking care of the basketball. When we take care of the basketball, we score points; when we turn it over, it just kills us.”
Early in the second half, senior guard B.J. Porter hit back-to-back three-pointers, setting off a 15-5 run that gave his team a 37-23 lead midway through the second half. Point Loma’s Todd Campbell scored the next seven points, cutting the lead in half to 37-30 before Leaf scored the first six points of an 8-0 run that gave the Cougars a 45-30 lead with less than three minutes to play.
“Point Loma just guards you so tough – we got them down by 14 (points) and it felt like we were up by 30,” Leslie said. “The good thing is that as well as they defend, they’re not explosive offensively, so we were able to grind it home down the stretch.”
Porter added 13 points to Leaf’s 21-point, 10-rebound double-double, and senior guard Justin Jones contributed six points and two assists off the bench.
“They’re not just shooters, they’re good basketball players – they’re able to understand what we’re trying to accomplish in scouting reports, they’ll watch the film, and it’s that little bit of maturity that came out in some big plays down the stretch on both sides of the ball,” Leslie said of Porter and Leaf, who combined for 34 of the Cougars’ 52 points. “One of the things I was pleased with in those two in particular was that defensively there were multiple times where they would catch a switch or help, just the little things that go unnoticed that prevented a good Point Loma look. Little stuff like that is winning basketball, and they gave us some good stuff out there tonight.”
Five other players each registered a blocked shot to go with Watson’s four-block night, giving the Cougars a season-best nine blocks on the night. Junior center Bert Hall came off the bench to grab nine rebounds along with five points and a block. Watson registered two of his blocks late in the first half, swatting a Sam Okhotin three-point attempt several rows into the sideline seating before rejecting an AJ Ussery layup with just under a minute left in the half.
“Defensively we wanted to make them take tough, lower-percentage shots, and I happened to be there on the weak-side a couple of times to get some blocks,” Watson said. “As the season goes on, I’m trying to figure out my niche and my role on the team. That feels like the approach of all the young guys on the team; we’re all just trying to find our way and figure out what we can do to help the team.”
In the opening half, not a single Point Loma player made more than one shot from the field, with the Sea Lions’ 14 points coming from six different players. Campbell scored all eight of his points in the second half, and he was one of four players to share the team scoring lead for Point Loma. Taylor Wetherell also scored all eight of his points in the second half, and Trevor Peterson and Weston Ehlers finished with eight points each.
With the win, Azusa Pacific improves to 6-5 overall, and the Cougars are one of three remaining unbeaten teams in PacWest play with a 3-0 conference mark heading into Saturday’s 3 p.m. clash with defending conference champion Dixie State, which is currently 4-1 in the league.
Point Loma falls to 3-8 overall and 0-5 in the PacWest.