AZUSA, Calif. -- As Azusa Pacific nears the completion of its first season at a new level, while adjusting to a new conference and new rivalries, the Cougars honored Thursday night’s “Throwback” theme in impressive fashion by dismantling California Baptist, 79-62, in front of a season-high home crowd of 1,600 clad in bright orange at the Felix Event Center.
In a performance befitting a tradition that’s established Azusa Pacific as one of college basketball’s most consistently successful programs over the past two decades, the Cougars executed the game plan to perfection in a start-to-finish masterpiece. Azusa Pacific never trailed, committed a season-low seven turnovers, controlled the boards, and spread the offense around five different scorers who reached double figures.
“It was a very mature effort from our team, and they hit the scouting report out of the park,” Cougar head coach Justin Leslie said. “They did a great job taking care of the little things, and they played with great energy throughout. We put a big emphasis on executing. We didn’t run a lot of things, but the four or five things we ran tonight were things we had practiced and were ready for.”
Senior guard B.J. Porter led the way, knocking down three early three-pointers that helped Azusa Pacific to an early double-digit lead in the first half while leading all scorers with 18 points. Sophomore guard Troy Leaf notched a 17-point, 11-assist double-double, adding seven rebounds to finish just three boards away from a triple-double, and a Cougar frontcourt that included 11-point scorers Jared Zoller, Christian Katuala, and Bert Hall contributed to an overwhelming force inside. The seven-turnover performance was Azusa Pacific’s lowest-turnover game since surrendering six in a Feb. 26, 2011 rout of San Diego Christian.
“We’re in playoff mode,” Leslie said. “I told them after the Chaminade game that we just have to win out. Every practice and film session has to be good, and the assistant coaches have done a good job preparing the team mentally, because physically at this time of year, we just can’t practice for a long time. We have to do all those little things, and it takes some maturity to prepare yourself mentally.”
Porter knocked down three of his five three-pointers within the game’s first seven minutes. His first put the Cougars in front for good, taking a 6-3 lead on the team’s second possession of the game, and his second trey made it 11-4 and forced California Baptist to take an early timeout. He knocked down his third during a 9-2 run that pushed the lead into double figures, 22-11, less than nine minutes into the game.
“B.J. has been so focused for us,” Leslie said. “Win, lose, or draw, he wants us to play hard and enjoy it, and he wants to make sure this season finishes on our terms. If somebody beats us, then they beat us, but we’re not going to beat ourselves.”
The Lancers scored eight of the next nine points, pulling to within four points at 23-19 with eight minutes left in the half, but the Cougar defense answered with three consecutive defensive stops in less than a minute that all led to easy points inside to push the lead back into double-digits at 29-19 with 6:46 left in the half. California Baptist never got closer than eight points the rest of the way, doing so twice more in the first half and once in the second after the Cougars took a 38-28 margin into halftime.
The Cougars collected 11 offensive rebounds to go with 11 defensive boards, generating its entire seven-rebound margin over the Lancers in the first half alone. Azusa Pacific’s 22-15 first-half rebounding edge led to a 12-2 margin in second-chance points, and the Cougars also generated an 11-2 advantage in points off turnovers in the opening half.
“We challenged them to be more physical, to go out there and be the aggressors and own every spot,” Leslie said. “We got some guys in foul trouble, but we weathered that and continued to grind them out. Our keys going into the game were to value the ball and to front Luke Evans and not allow him touches. We only had seven turnovers, and Evans didn’t score a basket until the very end of the second half.”
After the lead fluctuated between eight and 12 points for the first eight minutes after halftime, Porter capped an 8-0 burst with a triple from the top of the key that pushed the lead to 18 points, 60-42, with just under 10 minutes left in the game.
After the Lancers cut the lead to 14 points inside five minutes to play, when CBU’s season scoring leader Luke Evans scored his first and only basket of the game, Porter answered with his final trey of the game, sparking a 10-0 run that gave Azusa Pacific its largest lead of the game, 79-55, with two minutes left.
“This win means a lot, because it shows our will to win,” Porter said. “We’re not ready to give up, and we knew we had to win because our back’s against the wall and we have nothing to lose.”
The Lancers, who were led by Anthony Cosentino’s 17-point effort, scored seven in the final two minutes to close the final gap to 79-62. Kevin Crabb contributed 11 points and eight rebounds off the bench for California Baptist, and Ivan Patterson finished with 12 points and four rebounds.
For Porter, the performance was especially sweet, as it came with his cousin, NFL wide receiver Calvin Johnson, on hand to watch one of the final games of the 6-foot-3 guard’s collegiate career.
“Calvin and I have always been really close,” Porter said. “He’s like my older brother, because I never had an older brother. He’s given me advice, he’s pushed me, and he’s encouraged me, and it just shows how close our family is. We all support each other. I don’t care if he’s playing in Green Bay in a blizzard, I would be out there supporting him with a Detroit Lions hat on. He would do the same for me, and that goes for all of our cousins, because we all grew up together and our family is very close.”
After taking nine- and 11-point halftime leads in a pair of defeats to BYU-Hawaii and Chaminade in last week’s Hawaiian Islands road trip, the victory also highlighted Azusa Pacific’s ability to finish a game as well as it started. Leaf scored nine of his 17 points and passed out eight of his 11 assists after halftime, and Porter added eight points in the second half.
“We’ve probably had seven or eight games where we feel like we could have or probably should have won games, but being young and inexperienced, myself included, we just haven’t made plays down the stretch,” Leaf said. “Tonight, when we got into the second half, we knew what we needed to do. We’ve taken steps forward and then taken a step back, and the key for us now is just to keep taking steps forward.”
The victory sends Azusa Pacific into its regular season finale on Saturday against Grand Canyon needing a victory to be eligible for next week’s National Christian College Athletic Association (NCCAA) regional playoffs. The Cougars, who currently hold an 11-13 overall record and are 8-8 in Pacific West Conference play, will likely qualify for an NCCAA waiver after Azusa Pacific’s final road game in Hawai‘i was cancelled due to unsafe playing conditions at the University of Hawai‘i Hilo gymnasium.
“We’re playing to get into the postseason, and even if it’s not the NCAA Tournament, we just want to play postseason games,” Leaf said. “This one was huge because it was a must-win game, but we’ll get back to work tomorrow because we have another must-win on Saturday.”
California Baptist falls to 14-11 overall and 8-9 in PacWest play. Neither team will participate in the inaugural PacWest Tournament hosted by Azusa Pacific, a six-team tournament whose champion will win the league’s automatic bid into the NCAA playoffs.