RIVERSIDE, Calif. -- For the second straight game, Azusa Pacific spent virtually an entire game fighting from behind, and the Cougars have dropped back-to-back games after a 3-0 start to Pacific West Conference play with an 81-69 road defeat at California Baptist in Riverside Tuesday night.
“In an 18-game conference schedule, success is all about consistency and toughness,” Cougar head coach Justin Leslie said. “It’s being committed to getting better; we have to continue to play better basketball each game. With a young team, that has to be our focus, because this is the toughest stretch of the year right here.”
Senior guard B.J. Porter and sophomore guard Troy Leaf combined for 34 points, but both were held below 50 percent shooting from the field, and the Cougars were out-rebounded by a 41-28 margin.
“California Baptist deserves a lot of credit for how they played,” Leslie said. “The focus and the passion they had coming out from the start, they brought that the whole game and we weren’t prepared to match the type of focus and effort that they gave.”
California Baptist claimed a 39-26 halftime lead, giving Azusa Pacific a 13-point halftime deficit for the second straight game. Porter scored 11 points in the first half, hitting three-of-five first-half three-point attempts, but the Lancers reeled off a 10-0 run to jump out to a 28-14 lead with 9:34 left in the half. California Baptist led by double-digits the rest of the half.
“That run right there was the whole game, and it was just a breakdown of our fundamentals,” Leslie said. “It was the basic things that we work on offensively and defensively that cost us. I give California Baptist credit because they made the shots, but we shouldn’t have let them get into position to get those wide open shots. We just broke down and gave them that opportunity.”
A Leaf three-pointer helped spark an 8-0 run to start the second half, cutting the Lancers’ lead to 39-34 less than three minutes after halftime, and a Jared Zoller layup with 14:45 to play trimmed the margin to just four points at 42-38. Anthony Cosentino, who finished with 18 points and hit four-of-six from three-point range, drilled a trey during a quick 7-0 run that took less than a minute to push the lead back to 49-38 with 13:26 left.
Azusa Pacific never got closer than eight points until the closing minutes. After Kyle Wong hit a pair of free throws with 1:15 left to seemingly put the game out of reach with a 10-point lead (72-62), the Cougars finally came to life.
Sophomore guard Kevin Stafford quickly brought the ball up and knocked down a three-pointer, and freshman guard Nick Price scored with 52 seconds remaining to answer Andrew Fisk’s layup in transition. Both Cougar baskets cut the lead to seven points, and Wong turned the ball over in the backcourt on consecutive possessions, allowing freshman forward Sharif Watson to pull Azusa Pacific within five points at 74-69 with 35 seconds to play.
However, the Cougars missed on their final four shot attempts, allowing California Baptist to ice the game with four free throws and a three-point play in the closing seconds for the final 12-point margin. Andrew Fisk scored the final three points, finishing nine-of-11 from the field including a make on his only three-point try to go with three free throws to lead the Lancers with a game-high 22 points. Cosentino added 18 points, and Luke Evans provided a 14-point, nine-rebound performance for California Baptist, which shot 56 percent (29-for-52) from the field in the game.
Azusa Pacific was held to 41 percent shooting (26-for-63), with Porter scoring a team-high 18 points while Leaf added 16 points. Stafford added seven points, all in the second half, and Watson posted a solid seven-point, seven-rebound, three-block effort before fouling out in the final minute of play. Watson has registered at least two blocks in four consecutive games with Tuesday’s three-block performance, and Leaf has scored 16 or more in six straight contests.
“We had a good day of practice yesterday, but it takes more than a day, or two good days of practice to have success in a game,” Leslie said. “It takes weeks and months of building up that process of doing things the right way to come out and have success against quality opponents at this point in the year. We need to grow up.”
Azusa Pacific continues PacWest play next Monday, Jan. 21, when the Cougars visit Grand Canyon University in the second of three consecutive road games.