AZUSA, Calif. -- Fueled at both ends by an aggressive, attacking style, Azusa Pacific got into the fast-paced type of game it wanted in the season opener, and the Cougars past Cal State Dominguez Hills for a 92-73 win Friday night.
Five players scored in double figures for Azusa Pacific, which forced 21 Toro turnovers, scored 31 points off them, and finished with a 22-point margin in fast break scoring to cruise to a big win over a quality West region opponent from the California Collegiate Athletic Association (CCAA). The victory gave the Cougars a win in the season-opener for the 13th time in the past 14 seasons.
“Cal State Dominguez Hills is a good team, so I’m very pleased to go out there and get that first win against a quality team,” Azusa Pacific head coach Justin Leslie said. “We want to play fast and on attack – that’s what I tell the players when I recruit them, it’s what I tell them the first day of practice, and while it’s a lot of fun to play and watch, I think it also fits our personnel and skill sets.”
Junior point guard Robert Sandoval, who hadn’t played in a college game since the end of the 2011-12 season after redshirting last season, put together an outstanding all-around performance, scoring 14 points, dishing out 11 assists, grabbing a team-high seven rebounds while picking up six of the Cougars’ 11 steals in the game. Sophomore forward Sharif Watson came off the bench for a game-high 18 points, hitting all eight of his shots from the floor along with a pair of free throws. One of the highlights was a first-half lob from Sandoval to Watson for a dunk that gave Azusa Pacific a 22-21 lead midway through the first half.
“I had nerves and I was excited early in the game, but I was pumped just to be back out there on the floor,” Sandoval said. “We had a bunch of transition points, a bunch of dunks, and I like that because it gets the crowd excited and boosts the team’s energy.”
Although Cal State Dominguez Hills answered by taking a pair of two-point leads in an ensuing two-minute stretch, Watson capped an 8-0 Cougar run with a mid-range baseline jumper that put Azusa Pacific in front for good, 33-27, with 3:49 left in the first half.
“I was looking for my spots, and it makes it easy when guys like Robert and Troy Leaf draw so much attention from the other team,” Watson said. “When they lose track of me, I have to make them pay for it.”
In the second half, the Cougars shot a blistering 70 percent from the field, hitting 23-of-33 shots and committing just three turnovers after halftime. They took a six-point halftime lead before scoring 10 of the first 13 points of the second half on three-pointers from junior guard Troy Leaf and freshman forward Corey Langerveld, along with a breakaway dunk from Langerveld that extended the lead to 47-34 with 16:43 to play. Less than five minutes later, a Watson steal and layup finished off a 9-0 run that gave Azusa Pacific its first 20-point advantage, although three-pointers on three straight Toro possessions in less than a minute trimmed the deficit to 60-49 with 10:21 left.
With Azusa Pacific leading 69-55 with 7:14 to go, Everett Turner hit back-to-back three-pointers for Cal State Dominguez Hills before a Chris Carvin free throw with 6:20 left cut what had been a 14-point margin less than one minute earlier in half, to a seven-point Cougar edge, 69-62, with 6:20 remaining in the game.
That brought Sandoval and Watson back off the bench, where they immediately scored the first 10 points of a 13-0 run that took less than two minutes to push the lead all the way back to a 20-point margin, 82-62, with 4:07 to play. Cal State Dominguez Hills never got closer than 19 points the rest of the way.
“The ticket tonight was our defense. We let ourselves down in a few stretches in the second half, but that had more to do with poor offensive decisions and bad shots that we took that allowed them to have those scoring opportunities,” Leslie said.
In addition to Sandoval’s impressive all-around stat line, the Cougars got a 15-point, seven-rebound effort from senior forward Tyler Monroe, who like Sandoval is returning to action after redshirting last season. Leaf, the Pacific West Conference’s top returning scorer this year, added 14 points with five assists, and Langerveld tallied 11 points in his collegiate debut.
On the game, Azusa Pacific posted huge advantages in points off turnovers (31-5), fast break points (28-6), and points in the paint (54-22). The Cougars, who forced 21 turnovers and committed only eight, shot 55 percent (39-for-71) from the field in the victory.
“There’s no substitute for veterans, and most of our younger guys have been here for at least three years,” Leslie said. “There were moments in the game where they weren’t rattled, and they were prepared to make a play. They saw things and made the proper decisions to take advantage of what they saw. This game is a testament to how good they could be as they progress throughout the season. It takes a lot of responsibility to go out and have as much freedom as we allow them to play with.”
Sandoval, Monroe, and junior forward Andy Jones shared the team rebounding lead with seven each, although Moriba DeFreitas led Cal State Dominguez Hills to a team rebounding edge, 40-35, with a game-high 13 boards. DeFreitas scored 12 points, and Pierson Williams was the Toros’ leading scorer with 15 points. Senior forward Bertram Hall was two points away from being the sixth Cougar in double figures, finishing with eight points and four rebounds while limited by foul trouble to just 14 minutes of action.
“We picked up our energy defensively,” Sandoval said. “They started going to a lot of ball screens, and we were able to work as a team on defense to get stops and force them to take tough shots.”
Azusa Pacific wraps up the Cougar Classic Saturday night with a 7:30 p.m. matchup against No. 7-ranked Cal Poly Pomona, which fell to 1-2 on the year after falling to unranked Western Oregon, 70-65, in Friday’s Classic opener. Cal State Dominguez Hills, which takes on Western Oregon Saturday at 5:30 p.m., falls to 2-2 on the year.