AZUSA, Calif. -- Biola’s 83-78 win over Azusa Pacific Saturday night showed that one of southern California basketball’s best historic rivalries remains alive and well, even though the programs no longer compete in the same conference or carry the same national affiliation.
A year ago, it seemed that Azusa Pacific’s up-tempo approach and physical depth was too much for the Eagles, but Biola simply wasn’t ready to concede that last year’s 71-64 Cougar victory would serve as a template for the future of the series rivalry. Junior seven-foot forward Mike Kurtz scored 20 points with nine rebounds, and junior guard Pierre Zook scored 25 to lead the Eagles to a fast start that never let up.
“That wasn’t at all what I expected from this team,” head coach Justin Leslie said. “We were trying to force tempo by playing aggressive defensively, but all we did was blow assignments that gave Biola opportunities to score early and easily. We didn’t block out very well, and it was an awful defensive performance.”
Junior guard Troy Leaf finished with game-highs of 27 points and nine rebounds, and senior forward Tyler Monroe added 21 points and seven rebounds. Biola had four players reach double figures, led by Zook and Kurtz and including Andre Murrillo with 18 points off the bench and an 11-point, five-assist effort by Dakari Archer.
Zook scored a dozen points in the first half, drilling a three-pointer that gave Biola its first double-digit lead before knocking down two free throws in the final minute of the opening half to lead the Eagles to a commanding 40-27 halftime edge. After shooting 59 percent (17-for-29) from the field in the first half, Biola was even better after halftime, hitting 12-of-17 shots for a 71 percent second-half clip while answering every Azusa Pacific challenge down the stretch.
“Biola is a good team, but they’re not a team that should have dominated the interior and the paint like they did tonight,” Leslie said. “We should have had a better performance, and we know what things we’re going to have to work on.”
After a Kurtz layup with 15:56 remaining gave Biola an 18-point lead, its largest of the game, junior forward Andy Jones knocked down two free throws before sophomore forward Sharif Watson brought the Felix Event Center crowd of 2,578 to life with a thunderous dunk from the left baseline that trimmed the margin to 14 points at 51-37.
“It’s always nice to see a crowd for the Biola game, and I’m appreciative of the student body getting us as much support as they did; we had a great turnout and the crowd was fantastic,” Leslie said. “When we don’t go out there and perform, that’s a hard one to swallow.”
However, Kurtz answered with baskets on the next two Eagle possessions to push the lead right back to 18 points. Again, the Cougars gained some more momentum with a 14-2 run midway through the half, starting with six straight points from sophomore guard LyDell Cardwell, followed by a Tyler Monroe dunk and six more points from junior guard Kevin Stafford. Stafford’s three-pointer with 9:15 left in the game pulled the Cougars to within six at 57-51.
The Eagles had another answer, going to Kurtz for consecutive buckets which started a 12-2 run that put Biola back in front by 16, 69-53, with 4:23 to play. Leaf also hit two three-pointers and converted another three-point play that brought Azusa Pacific within seven points at 73-66 with 1:33 to play. Zook hit a pair of free throws after he was fouled with 1:16 to play, and Andre Murrillo knocked down three-of-four at the line to push Biola’s lead back to 10 with under a minute to play.
Leaf was fouled twice on three-point attempts in the last 30 seconds, and he hit all six free throws to cut the margin to five points (81-76) with 16 seconds left. The Cougars were forced to foul Zook, who calmly sank two free throws that put the game out of reach with 14 seconds to play.
“If this rivalry can continue to work out with the schedule, we absolutely want to keep it going,” Leslie said. “This team right now is not physically tough, and it’s not that we aren’t strong, but physically and mentally we haven’t been able to go out there and force ourselves to compete for all those details. Going forward, that’s something we have to change.”
Azusa Pacific, which falls to 1-2 to open the 2013-14 season, returns to action after Thanksgiving with games against Alaska Fairbanks and Northwest Nazarene (Idaho). Biola, which started the season with just two wins in its first five games, evens its record at 3-3 overall.