AZUSA, Calif. -- Just six days after Azusa Pacific wore throwback uniforms in a 17-point win over California Baptist, the Cougars turned back the clock again, donning orange once again to thrill another large crowd with a 78-73 victory over the Lancers in the National Christian College Athletic Association West regional playoffs Tuesday night at the Felix Event Center.
Senior guard B.J. Porter’s rollercoaster week continued, this time matching his career scoring high in a brilliant 25-point performance. Porter was eight-of-13 from the field, hitting five-of-nine three-pointers, going a perfect four-for-four with three treys to score 11 in the first half and lead Azusa Pacific to a 42-34 halftime advantage.
Porter’s shooting helped the Cougars overcome a persistent rebounding effort from California Baptist, which posted a 38-27 edge on the boards and registered a 15-2 scoring edge in second chance points.
“The difference tonight when we got them down by 10, was that last Thursday night wasn’t the last game of the year for the other team,” Cougar head coach Justin Leslie said. “They rolled over last week, and they weren’t going to do that tonight. With this young team, that’s what I want them to learn, that in the postseason it’s different. There’s a different level of fight and a passion that comes out, and we need to be able to match that with poise.”
With the win, Azusa Pacific advances to Wednesday night’s NCCAA West regional championship game at Fresno Pacific, with the winner claiming the West region’s berth into the NCCAA National Tournament March 13-16 in Winona Lake, Ind.
“We get to play another day, and if we can win again, we get to play three more,” Leslie said. “I’ve been fortunate in my career to play a lot of basketball in March, as a player and as a coach. That extra pressure that comes when you’re playing for your season, there’s just a different level that it takes everybody to, and those are the things you carry with you throughout your life. Those lessons about growing up get magnified this time of year. It doesn’t matter what we’re playing for, we’re playing to be a team for another day, and that’s pretty special.”
Sophomore guard Troy Leaf scored 12 points while taking just seven shots from the field, but he dished out a career-high 12 assists to an offense that hit 51 percent (25-for-55) of its shots. In his last two games against the Lancers, Leaf has dished out 23 assists while registering a pair of double-doubles in points and assists. The Cougars forced California Baptist into 19 turnovers and registered a 21-12 edge in points off turnovers.
Azusa Pacific only trailed twice in the game, both in the first seven minutes of the game, and both times the Cougars answered in less than 30 seconds. Luke Evans, the Lancers’ leading scorer entering last week’s game who was held scoreless in that game until late in the second half, wasted no time getting on the board Tuesday. His putback of an Andrew Fisk miss on the game’s opening possession set the tone for the game, although the Cougars quickly answered with freshman Sharif Watson’s nifty spin move into the paint for a short jumper to tie the game in the opening minute.
Jalen Jury’s three-point play with 13:03 left in the first half gave California Baptist a 10-9 lead, but a Leaf steal resulted in a Watson slam with 12:42 remaining to put Azusa Pacific in front for good. Watson’s dunk served as the catalyst for a 13-3 run over a three-minute, 30-second span that put the Cougars up by nine at 22-13 with nine minutes left in the half. Porter hit a three-pointer in the closing seconds of the half, pushing the lead to 42-34 at halftime.
“Tonight was back to normal for us,” Porter said. “Everything was flowing within the offense, so the shots I was able to get were easy.”
Azusa Pacific led by as many as 13 points three times in the first three minutes of the second half before Kevin Crabb scored three consecutive times in the paint during an 8-0 run that drew the Lancers within five at 51-46 with 13:34 remaining. Porter responded with a pair of free throws and scored seven of the Cougars’ next 14 points to get the lead back into double digits at 65-52 with 8:42 left.
After a Nick Price jumper with 7:49 remaining put the Cougars up by a dozen, 69-57, Azusa Pacific went six minutes without a field goal, scoring just one point on a Leaf free throw before California Baptist reeled off nine straight points to pull within four, 70-66, with 2:16 left. Another Porter trey ended the offensive drought, and California never got closer than five points in the final two minutes.
California Baptist featured four double-digit scorers, including Evans’ 21-points, seven-rebound effort along with 11 points, seven rebounds, and three steals for Fisk. Anthony Cosentino added 12 points, and six rebounds, while point guard Kyle Wong contributed 10 points with a couple of assists. Other than Evans, who shot six-of-eight from the field and knocked down nine-of-10 free throws, the other four CBU starters shot a combined .325 (13-for-40) from the field.
“We’ve learned what our identity is as a team, that we’re a team that can dig in and get stops.” Leslie said. “We can defend and lower teams’ shooting percentages, and we’ve shown consistently throughout the year that when we’ve guarded, we’ve been good, and when we haven’t we’re not very good. It’s maturity, it’s toughness, it’s being willing to go out there and do the unglamorous things that makes your teammates look good. It’s about trusting, and it takes time to build. The team is buying into that and understanding it, and we’re coming closer to playing a more consistent 40 minutes.”
While Porter and Leaf combined for 37 points, five other Cougars registered between six and eight points, with junior forward Christian Katuala scoring eight while Watson ended up with a solid all-around line of six points, five rebounds, two blocks, and two steals. Sophomore Kevin Stafford contributed four assists off the bench and freshman Will Ward provided four points, four rebounds, and two blocks.
“You just can’t enjoy (tonight’s game) at all,” Porter said. “Maybe after the season I’ll look back at these last home games, but right now all I can think about is the bad taste we have in our mouth from when we last went up to Fresno. We can’t be satisfied.”
The Cougars improved to 13-13 overall with the win, while California Baptist’s season concludes with a 14-13 record.