AZUSA, Calif. -- Behind a dominant rebounding performance, Azusa Pacific raced out to a big early lead and surged to a 72-54 win over Notre Dame de Namur Saturday afternoon that lifted the Cougars above .500 in Pacific West Conference play.
Senior guard B.J. Porter drilled three consecutive three-pointers in the first two minutes, helping his team open the game with a 20-4 run in the opening five minutes. Azusa Pacific scored 12 points before Notre Dame de Namur got on the board, and sophomore guard Troy Leaf answered the Argonauts’ first bucket with a three-pointer of his own.
“We’ve started out slow the last couple of games, and I felt like I needed to go out there and help the team,” Porter said. “The coaches did a great job stressing certain points where I could move to get open shots. The only thing left for my job was to take my time and knock it down.”
Freshman forward Sharif Watson, who registered a 14-point, 10-rebound double-double, threw down a pair of dunks during the game-opening run, and the Cougars led by at least 14 points from that point on.
“We had some great rotations defensively and got some charges early, and I think that really disrupted their rhythm,” Cougar head coach Justin Leslie said. “They didn’t get to run what they wanted to run. We really took them out of that, and our start was fantastic because we defended really well with a ton of energy to start the game.”
Watson led all rebounders with 10, helping Azusa Pacific to twice as many boards as Notre Dame de Namur with a final rebounding margin of 50-25.
Porter, Leaf, and Watson all shared the scoring lead with a game-high 14 points each, and Watson hit every shot he took in five attempts from the field and four from the free throw line to record his second double-double of the season. Leaf added eight rebounds and a game-high eight assists to go with his 14 points.
“I’m starting to figure out where I can get my shots, where I can set other people up, and where I can really affect the game, which is on the glass and the defensive end,” Watson said. “I focus more on those, and the offense just comes with it.”
Just three weeks ago, the Cougars were out-rebounded by Dixie State and California Baptist in back-to-back games by a combined 30 rebound, but since then, Azusa Pacific has won the battle of the boards in four straight. That includes road games against Grand Canyon and Dixie State, who both rank among the conference’s top four in rebounding margin, and now a pair of home games against Holy Names and Notre Dame de Namur by a combined margin of 41 (97-56).
“We just emphasize limiting teams to one shot, because the fewer possessions they have, the less chance they have to score,” Watson said. “We try to limit teams to one shot, one possession, and no second-chance points. That’s how you win games. When you out-rebound teams, you’re usually going to win.”
A pair of Watson free throws extended the lead to 19 points (32-13) with five minutes to play in the first half, and he threw down his third dunk of the game to answer a Johnny Hutton three-pointer that had pulled the Argos to within 14 points. Hutton knocked down another trey with 2:31 left, cutting the Cougar advantage to 36-21, but Leaf hit a long two-point jumper as time ran out in the first half to send Azusa Pacific into halftime with a 17-point edge at 40-23, its largest halftime lead of the season and just the second time this year the Cougars have led by 10 or more heading into the second half.
“We got into the locker room at halftime, and I asked when the last time we found ourselves in this position – the answer was never, so we needed to learn how we handle this,” Leslie said. “We had them at arm’s length, so now how do we keep them there and take the suspense out of this game. Today ended up being a learning opportunity in a situation we hadn’t had all year, and they responded really well after halftime. We didn’t go for the home run after halftime, we just kept doing the little things to be solid and steady.”
After Notre Dame de Namur scored to open the second half, Porter and freshman forward Jared Zoller each hit three-pointers in a 10-2 run that extended Azusa Pacific’s lead to 23 points, its largest margin of the game. The closest the Argonauts came the rest of the way was when Jack Pasquini hit back-to-back three-pointers to cut the lead to 16 points at 53-37 with 13:32 remaining in the game, but the Cougars answered with seven straight points, including another Zoller trey, to push the lead back to 23 points.
“We’re starting to figure out our identity as a team – the things that we do well and the things we need to focus on going into a game in order to have success, and it’s mainly defensive,” Leslie said. “Offensively, we’re good. We’re not great, and today we shot a good percentage, but it was our defense. It never ceases to amaze me, and the players are probably starting to get it, that when we play that way defensively, we score better. When you stop somebody, it takes away their confidence and their swagger, and they don’t defend as hard. Your shots actually get easier by defending somebody well.”
Notre Dame de Namur never got closer than 18 points over the final 10 minutes of the game, as Azusa Pacific got all 15 players who suited up into the contest. Zoller hit all three of his shots from the field, including two three-pointers, to finish with eight points, and freshman Will Ward also contributed eight points and three rebounds in 12 minutes of action off the bench. Freshman point guard Clay Ragsdale also came off the bench, and he contributed three assists and a game-high three steals.
Micah Dunhour was the Argonauts’ only scorer to reach double figures, finishing with 11 points on four-of-11 shooting from the field while Wesley White and Geoff Hartman added eight points each.
With the win, Azusa Pacific improves to 8-9 overall and raises its PacWest record to 5-4 heading into another pair of conference home games next week against Academy of Art (Feb. 4) and Dominican (Feb. 6). Notre Dame de Namur has now lost five straight by 11 points or more, falling to 5-14 overall and 4-7 in the PacWest.