FRESNO, Calif. -- Despite running on emotional fumes after playing three emotional games in the previous six days, Azusa Pacific rallied from an 18-point first-half deficit to briefly take the lead in the second half before Fresno Pacific held on late for a 109-105 win in Wednesday’s National Christian College Athletic Association West regional finals.
John Taylor scored 39 points to lead all scorers, adding six assists and a game-high five steals. Azusa Pacific countered with 24 points each from sophomore guard Troy Leaf and freshman forward Sharif Watson, who obliterated his career-highs in points and rebounds with his 24-point, 14-rebound performance.
The Sunbirds’ 109 points represent the most allowed by Azusa Pacific in a regulation game since 1996, and the 214-point combined scoring total made Wednesday’s matchup the highest-scoring regulation game for the Cougars since 1994 and its highest-scoring regulation defeat since Loyola Marymount ran its “run-and-gun” system to post a 164-138 victory over Azusa Pacific during the 1988-89 campaign.
The Cougars, who won back-to-back games last week against California Baptist and Grand Canyon with just a day of rest in between, had even less time to savor Tuesday’s regional playoff victory over California Baptist. Less than 12 hours after that game, Azusa Pacific boarded a bus for Fresno to take on the top-seeded team in the West region, a rested Fresno Pacific team which had only played one game in the week leading up to Wednesday’ NCCAA regional championship game. By winning the regional title, Fresno Pacific moves on to the eight-team NCCAA National Tournament next week in Winona Lake, Ind.
The exhausting week limited senior guard B.J. Porter to eight minutes as he battled soreness from a minor leg injury from the night before. Porter only took two shots, going scoreless in his brief playing time after pouring in a career-high 25 points Tuesday night and playing a major role in Azusa Pacific’s two victories to close out the regular season last week.
Fresno Pacific certainly looked like the fresher team early on, scoring 57 points in the first half alone on 59 percent (20-for-34) shooting from the field and leading by as many as 18 before the Cougars finished the half with a 9-2 run to pull within 57-46 at halftime. Azusa Pacific also scored the first eight points of the second half to trim the deficit to just three points, 57-54, with 18:43 to play in the game.
From that point on, the Cougars stayed within six points of the Sunbirds until Kevin Stafford hit a three-pointer that with 15:36 left that tied the game at 67-67. Just over a minute later, Leaf converted a three-point play with 14:14 left that pushed Azusa Pacific ahead, 72-70, for its first lead since holding a one-point edge for all of nine seconds early in the first half.
Fresno Pacific responded with six straight points, the last four from John Taylor, to take the lead for good with 12:06 to play. The Cougars stayed within 10 points the rest of the game, and a Watson three-point play with 33 seconds left pulled Azusa Pacific within three points at 106-103. Taylor made one-of-two free throws, and Fresno Pacific rebounded the Cougars’ three-point miss to hold on for the win.
Azusa Pacific was a perfect 12-for-12 at the free throw line in the first half, helping offset a huge disadvantage in first-half shooting. The Cougars warmed up in the second half, hitting 17-of-25 two-point shots while knocking down another 19 free throws in 23 attempts after halftime. The Cougars, who entered the game shooting free throws at a 63 percent clip as a team, finished 31-for-35 (.886) at the line, although they struggled beyond the three-point line, hitting just four-of-23 (.174) from long range.
Leaf added a game-high nine assists to his 24-point total, and three others joined Leaf and Watson as double-digit scorers. Junior forward Christian Katuala scored 14 points, while sophomore forward Andy Jones scored 12 points on four-of-four shooting from both the field and from the free throw line. Freshman Will Ward made four-of-five from the field to finish with 10 points and five rebounds for the Cougars.
Adding to Taylor’s 39-point outburst was a relatively quiet 20-point effort for Sunbirds guard Matt Samuels, while Malcolm Griffin added 19 points and three steals to help lead a defense that came up with 13 total steals while forcing 21 Azusa Pacific turnovers.
With the loss, Azusa Pacific concludes the 2012-13 campaign with a final overall record of 13-14, while Fresno Pacific moves on to next week’s NCCAA nationals with a 20-7 mark.