RIVERSIDE, Calif. -- While Azusa Pacific may not be built as a first-half team, the best early indicator of its success on the court has been the first 20 minutes, a theme that continued Friday evening after the Cougars used an early first-half run to set the tone for a 77-68 win over Alaska Fairbanks at the CBU Classic in Riverside.
Enjoying its first halftime lead since a season-opening win, the Cougars maintained a double-digit lead throughout much of the second half to hold off the Nanooks, who brought a four-game winning streak into Friday’s matchup. With the win, Azusa Pacific evens its overall record at 2-2 after dropping consecutive home games to Cal Poly Pomona and Biola.
“This win feels very good, because this has been as long a week of practice and anticipation after how we played last Saturday,” head coach Justin Leslie said. “I was tough on the team and the coaching staff this week, and we had a lot of hard conversations, self-reflection and evaluation of things that we needed to do to move forward and become the team we need to be.”
Junior guard Troy Leaf scored a game-high 25 points and senior forward Tyler Monroe added 20 points and a game-high seven rebounds as the Cougars addressed another early-season deficiency by winning the rebounding battle, 35-29.
“I give the guys credit because I know it can be difficult to hear about areas you’re deficient and need to improve,” Leslie said. “I was pleased that through a lot of the stuff we worked on, they showed a lot of growth and toughness to be able to go out and put all those things together. They really executed well, especially on the defensive side and rebounding. We had been exposed on the boards for a few games now, so to get out there and put what we worked on into play was very encouraging.”
Monroe scored back-to-back baskets that gave Azusa Pacific the lead for good early in the opening half, helping spark a 15-3 run in response to Alaska Fairbanks scoring the opening four points of the game. The Nanooks pulled within four points before Leaf knocked down a three-pointer and Monroe finished a short lob from junior point guard Robert Sandoval with a dunk that put the Cougars up nine, 31-22, with 3:57 to play in the half. A pair of three-pointers had Alaska Fairbanks back within four points, but Monroe knocked down a short jumper in the lane to send Azusa Pacific into halftime with a 36-30 edge.
“Alaska Fairbanks was a team shooting in the high-80s (percent) from the free throw line in most of their games this year, so in our pregame, I just asked the guys if they wanted to play this team from ahead or behind,” Leslie said. “We had to have a total sense of urgency, so to have a good start was really important for us tonight.”
Alaska Fairbanks got as close as five points at 40-35 within the first three minutes of the second half, but three-pointers from Leaf and sophomore guard LyDell Cardwell capped an 8-0 run that extended the lead to 48-35 with 15:05 left in the game. The lead bounced between eight and 13 points until the final 1:20, when Ronnie Baker dropped in a layup that cut the Cougar lead to seven points, 71-64. Monroe answered with a pair of free throws before Baker converted a three-point play that chopped the margin to six points, 73-67, with just over a minute left.
Junior guard Kevin Stafford knocked down four-of-four free throws in the final minute to help Azusa Pacific close out the win, and he finished with seven points and four rebounds. Junior forward Andy Jones scored eight points, hitting all four of his shots from the field while adding four boards to the Cougars’ rebounding cause. For the game, Azusa Pacific shot 57 percent (28-for-49) from the field, and the Cougars knocked down seven of their final nine attempts from the free throw line after converting at just 50 percent in its first 18 chances from the charity stripe.
Alaska Fairbanks was held to a 42 percent (26-for-62) shooting percentage from the field, which included a season-low 22 percent (6-for-27) from three-point range. The Nanooks were led by a 21-point, six-rebound effort from Baker, while Andrew Kelly added 18 points and seven boards.
“We need to be a team that’s going to be able to dictate the terms of how the game is played,” Leslie said. “Sometimes that’s going to be fast, and other times it’s going to be a little slower, but we need to be able to apply that and stick to it consistently. Up until the last couple of minutes tonight, the game looked the same at the end as it did at the beginning, and that was how we wanted the game to go.”
The Cougars are back in action Saturday against another Great Northwest Athletic Conference opponent, Northwest Nazarene University, in another 5 p.m. matchup at Van Dyne Gym on the California Baptist University.