ST. GEORGE, Utah -- Azusa Pacific head coach Justin Leslie expected the last two weeks to be the toughest stretch of the year for his young team.
The four-game gauntlet – all against three of last year’s top four Pacific West Conference teams, including road trips to all three schools – certainly lived up to the advance billing, but the Cougars nearly knocked off a PacWest title contender on the road for the second straight game, leading most of the game until Dixie State rallied late to hand Azusa Pacific a 67-59 defeat Saturday night in St. George, Utah.
“This team has gotten a lot tougher real quick,” Cougar head coach Justin Leslie said. “We said from the get-go that this would be the toughest stretch of the season, and what I’m most proud of is that it’s hardened them and made them grow a lot. We haven’t picked up the wins we would have liked, but these last two games we’ve played and battled and competed at the level we need to be at.”
The Cougars now return home for four consecutive home games against the PacWest’s Bay Area programs. The first three opponents (Holy Names, Notre Dame de Namur, and Academy of Art) of the four-game stretch are a combined 8-18 in conference play this season, compared to the combined 19-7 mark of Azusa Pacific’s opponents in its last four contests.
“We are ready for this thing to turn around,” Leslie said. “We are absolutely ready, and we’ve been so close. We’ve got a lot of frustration and aggression that I expect us to channel in a positive way.”
When the teams met two weeks ago in Azusa to kick off the treacherous four-game stretch, Dixie State dominated the Cougars on the boards, 48-31, and won going away by a 28-point margin. Saturday’s matchup in front of 3,275 at Burns Arena was a completely different story, as freshman Will Ward scored the Cougars’ first 10 points of the game to help his team to an early seven-point lead and an eventual 33-28 halftime advantage.
“We were able to pass the ball around and get quality angles to throw it in,” Leslie said. “That was a product of good ball movement early in the game, and Will was ready to have a great game for us. He was very physical and controlled the paint.”
In fact, Ward finished with 15 points and six rebounds to help lead Azusa Pacific to a 37-32 edge on the boards in the rematch, which came on the heels of another positive rebounding margin on the road against Grand Canyon’s quality big men. Sophomore guard Troy Leaf also scored 15 points, and he registered a game-high nine rebounds and two steals, while senior guard B.J. Porter added 12 points and two blocks.
“To go to Dixie State and Grand Canyon to out-rebound them in an area that’s been a comfortable margin for them over the year, it’s exciting to see that type of growth and development that’s taken place,” Leslie said. “The coaching staff has done a great job working with them and teaching them, and this team is ready for Wednesday night right now.”
In the first 10 minutes of the second half, Dixie State twice pulled within a single point of Azusa Pacific, even tying the game once at 38-38 with 13:35 remaining. The Cougars scored the next four points, and when Dixie cut the lead back to one on a pair of Massey free throws with 10:11 to play, Porter, Leaf, and Kevin Stafford all drilled consecutive three-point attempts in an 11-4 run that extended the margin to a game-high eight points, 54-46, with just under seven minutes remaining.
Dixie State finished the game with a 21-5 run, including a 12-2 burst over the final four minutes of play. The Red Storm didn’t get their first lead of the game until back-to-back Cougar turnovers allowed McKay Massey to break a 57-57 tie with one-of-two free throws and a long jumper on consecutive possessions. Ward had a putback that pulled Azusa Pacific within one at 60-59, and the Cougars were still within three points with 26 seconds left when it appeared that Sharif Watson cleanly blocked a Dalton Groskreutz three-point attempt that would have given Azusa Pacific a chance to tie the game.
Instead, Watson was whistled for a blocking foul, resulting in three free throws for Groskreutz, who sank two of the three for a five-point Red Storm lead. Azusa Pacific attempted three-pointers on its next two possessions, but both were blocked, and Dixie State sank three more free throws in the final 18 seconds to seal the win.
“We had three turnovers, and two led to immediate fouls, and that really sapped our offensive aggressiveness and got us on our heels a little bit,” Leslie said. “That was unfortunate because we were attacking them. We got a little tentative late, and that’s a maturity thing – some of our guys got a little baptism by fire in that environment.”
Dixie State scored 19 of its 39 points in the second half at the free throw line, and seven Red Storm players attempted at least two free throws in the second half. Massey led all scorers with 23 points, hitting seven-of-12 from the field and six-of-eight free throws, and Groskreutz added 16 points while he and Zach Robbins shared the team lead in rebounding with eight boards each.
With the loss, Azusa Pacific drops to 6-9 overall, 3-4 in PacWest play, while Dixie State improved to 13-4 overall and maintained its half-game edge over Grand Canyon for the PacWest lead with an 8-1 conference mark. The Cougars host Holy Names University on Wednesday, Jan. 30, in the first of four consecutive home games.