AZUSA, Calif. -- Forty-eight hours after letting Academy of Art do just about anything it wanted in a five-point defeat, Azusa Pacific was back to its stingy ways on defense and rebounding in an 81-63 victory over a Dominican squad that had a chance to complete a Southern California road sweep Wednesday night.
The Cougars of Monday night were nowhere to be found, instead replaced by what had become a familiar recipe for success in recent weeks. Azusa Pacific was back on top in the battle of the boards, out-rebounding Dominican by a whopping 45-25 margin, and it held the Penguins to 35 percent shooting (21-for-60) from the field to hold its fourth opponent in six games below 40 percent.
Sophomore guard Troy Leaf led a balanced effort, scoring 16 of his 20 points in the second half to help the Cougars expand a 41-29 halftime lead into Dominican’s largest margin of defeat all year. He added five rebounds and five assists, while senior guard B.J. Porter led the way early on with 15 of his 18 points before halftime. Redshirt freshman forward Jared Zoller registered season-highs of 15 points and six rebounds, and he knocked down six-of-eight shots including three-of-four three-pointers.
“It was all about defense,” Porter said. “Once we got up and guarded them, we were able to get easy buckets in transition. Coach made a point with us that you can trade buckets with a team all day, but he said we needed to make a stand. We didn’t make that stand against Academy of Art, so we wanted to make sure we came out here and played defense.”
It was an impressive win for Azusa Pacific, whose Monday defeat had cost it an opportunity to enter Wednesday’s final game of the four-game homestand with a chance to move over .500 on the year.
“As a team, we had some heart-to-hearts yesterday; we had some tough conversations to make sure the guys understand just how tough it is to compete at this level,” Cougar head coach Justin Leslie said. “We had a talk about what it means to represent Azusa Pacific, to go out there and compete, to buy in, and to play as a team. There’s no place more where team effort shows than in your defensive performance and your assist numbers. We defended, and we shared the basketball, and that’s what makes this a good team win.”
The Cougars improved to 9-10 overall and 6-5 in PacWest play against a Dominican squad that had entered the night with a chance to move into a third-place tie in the PacWest standings. The defeat dropped the Penguins to 12-9 overall and 8-5 in conference play, where they sit in a virtual tie for fifth with 7-4 BYU-Hawaii.
“Dominican is tough, because they’re just a scrappy, tough team that doesn’t go away,” Leslie said. “They’re a good team, but we defended consistently, and if you do that over the course of a game, that margin is created.”
Dominican led just twice in the game, both early in the first half for less than a minute. The first Penguins lead lasted just 10 seconds, with Leaf hitting a pair of free throws to erase a 6-4 deficit, and a Kevin Stafford three-pointer sparked a 14-2 run that erased a brief one-point deficit. The four-minute outburst resulted in a 20-9 Cougar lead when Zoller finished off the run with his first trey of the game.
Another Zoller three-pointer sparked Azusa Pacific to a 10-2 run over the final 2:11 of the half to give the Cougars a 12-point halftime edge at 41-29. The only time Dominican cut the lead to single digits was on Devin Golston’s three-pointer to open the second half. Bert Hall’s tip-in just 15 seconds later pushed the lead into double figures for good, and midway through the second half Hall scored on back-to-back possessions to wrap up a run of 13 consecutive points that extended the lead to 72-47 with 7:08 to play. The 25-point margin was Azusa Pacific’s biggest lead of the game, and the closest Dominican got the rest of the way was 16 points with five minutes remaining.
“Coach has told me that as a senior captain, I have to lead by example,” Porter said. “I know I can score, but I wanted to make sure I go out there to play defense and help us get stops. If you go score six but let your opponent score eight, you’re still down by two.”
Dominican was led offensively by Golston, who scored 16, and Jammall Clark, who finished with 14 points. Neither player registered an assist, and no other Penguins player scored more than seven points. Of its 25 rebounds, Dominican pulled down 14 from the offensive boards, and despite committing just 13 turnovers, it was Azusa Pacific that scored more points off turnovers (23) than the Penguins, who turned 22 Cougar turnovers into 22 points.
“This was one of our better shooting performances, but we turned it over 22 times and weren’t particularly efficient,” Leslie said. “At the same time, we were so good defensively that it covered up those areas where we were deficient.”
Redshirt freshman forward Sharif Watson helped lead Azusa Pacific’s rebounding performance with five points and a game-high seven rebounds, and Porter collected another five to go with Leaf’s five and Zoller’s six rebounds. Hall notched six points and three rebounds in 11 minutes of his first career start for the Cougars, who hit 63 percent (15-for-24) from the floor after halftime to put the game away in the second half.
“I hope what we showed tonight is that we’re made of hard work,” Porter said. “We’re not the tallest team, we’re not the most athletic team, but we’re going to be the team that goes out there and dives for 50/50 balls and does the extra things to make sure that we put ourselves in position to win games.”
Azusa Pacific hits the road for the next five games before returning home for the final two games of the regular season. First up is a Saturday, Feb. 9 visit to Fresno Pacific, which won seven straight after losing to the Cougars in Azusa in early January. The Sunbirds’ winning streak was snapped by PacWest-leading Dixie State on Tuesday night.
“With the talented team that Fresno Pacific has, you’ve got to defend,” Porter said. “If we go up there and defend, we’ll have a chance – if we go up and trade buckets, we’re going to be in trouble.”
A week after the Fresno trip Azusa Pacific will head to Hawai‘i for four games in eight days against the conference’s island schools.