PHOENIX, Ariz. -- After rallying from seven points down in the second half to lead in the final two minutes, Azusa Pacific gave up a layup on the final possession to allow Grand Canyon to escape with a narrow 50-49 victory over the Cougars Monday afternoon.
Andy Jones hit a pair of free throws with just under two minutes to play, pushing Azusa Pacific in front, 49-48, an advantage it held until Joshua Lowery’s driving layup with 14 seconds left provided the final game-winning margin. The ‘Lopes knocked the ball away from Troy Leaf as time ticked away, although a pair of missed free throws gave the Cougars one last possession with three seconds to play. Leaf’s halfcourt desperation shot missed off the backboard as time expired.
“This one really hurts to lose because we did so many things right that we’d been working on, and to not get rewarded for that is tough to swallow,” Cougar head coach Justin Leslie said. “If we consistently put together defensive efforts like this, we’re going to be okay. This group is laying the foundation right now, and they’re close to breaking through.”
After trimming a seven-point halftime lead to three points on a Jared Zoller three-pointer with 13:22 remaining in the game, the Cougars again faced a seven-point margin with 11:24 left. Leaf answered with a pair of free throws and back-to-back three-pointers, an eight-point outburst that gave Azusa Pacific a 36-35 edge with nine minutes to play, its first lead since the middle of the first half. Grand Canyon went back in front by four points, but another Zoller trey with 7:47 left pulled the Cougars back within a point at 40-39.
“About two weeks ago Jared decided he wants to be a player, and he’s been competing every day in practice at a different level,” Leslie said. “He’s playing confident and aggressive, and it came out on display here. He also played like that last week at Cal Baptist, and tonight he really stepped up for us.”
The rest of the game was a one-possession contest, with the score tied three times and the lead changing hands four times down the stretch. When a Lowery jumper pushed the ‘Lopes ahead by three, Leaf and B.J. Porter scored on consecutive possessions to swing the lead back into Azusa Pacific’s hands, 43-42, with six minutes left.
A pair of Lowery free throws were answered by Zoller hitting two from the charity stripe, tying the game at 45-45 with 4:26 remaining. Killian Larson converted a three-point play on Grand Canyon’s next possession, and Zoller drilled another long jumper with 3:32 to play to keep the Cougars within one at 48-47 with 3:32 left. Neither team scored again until Jones, who had hauled in a game-high 10 rebounds at that point, was fouled going after a Grand Canyon miss at the two-minute mark and knocked down a pair of free throws for a 49-48 Cougar lead.
“This is the first game where we didn’t have that stretch where we just gave up a run – we defended for 40 minutes,” Leslie said. “The consistency with which we defended tonight was our best of the year. It was a great team effort, and we were just a little bit short.”
Leaf finished with a team-high 16 points, and Lowery ended up leading all scorers with 18 points. He was Grand Canyon’s only player to reach double figures. The ‘Lopes scored 24 points in the second half, the lowest-scoring second half by an Azusa Pacific opponent all season, and GCU’s three-point shooting percentage of .182 (4-for-22) was also the lowest for a Cougar opponent this year.
“I’ve been very hard on this team, especially this last week,” Leslie said, “and the reason I’m being so tough on them is because I see their potential and I want them to realize it. We did a ton of focus this whole week leading up to this game on how we defend, and I’m really proud of how it translated on the court.”
Zoller tallied a career-high 12 points, hitting his first two three-pointers of the season as he scored 10 of his 12 in the second half. Jones added six points to go with his 10 boards, and Porter registered seven points to go with a game-high five assists and one block.
For the third straight game, Azusa Pacific registered a season-low in turnovers with 10. Led by 10 rebounds from Jones and another seven from freshman point guard Clay Ragsdale, who ran the point for all but three minutes of the second half, the Cougars edged Grand Canyon in rebounds, 35-33.
“I have to give credit to Clay,” Leslie said. “He really did a nice job in the second half handling their pressure and making good decisions, especially rebounding the ball.”
The Cougars also held Grand Canyon nine points below its average first-half scoring output, but the ‘Lopes ended the half with an 8-2 run capped by Lowery’s driving layup in the closing seconds. Azusa Pacific trailed just once in the early going, leading by as many as five points, but the Cougars went cold after Zoller’s short baseline jumper which extended the lead to 11-6 with 13:05 left in the first half.
Over the next five minutes, Grand Canyon scored eight in a row to take the lead for good, and after a Porter trey trimmed the margin to 18-17 with 5:26 left in the half, the Cougars scored just once more on a Jones layup as GCU pushed the halftime lead to 26-19.
“This was the first halftime of the season where I was able to make adjustments as opposed to having correct fundamentals and basics,” Lesile said. “As a coach, you can start to do some things when those fundamentals and basics are a given. Those are things we’ve worked on hard, because those have to become habits, and I saw a lot of good habits out there tonight.”
With the loss, Azusa Pacific drops to 6-8 overall, 3-3 in PacWest play, while Grand Canyon improves to 16-4 overall and 7-2 in conference play.