AZUSA, Calif. -- Azusa Pacific got an unexpected boost off the bench Monday night in a game it never trailed, using back-to-back three-pointers from sophomore guard Miller Brown late in the first half of the Cougars’ 80-69 Pacific West Conference victory over Fresno Pacific Monday night at the Felix Event Center.
Brown, who had only appeared in one other game in his career prior to Monday, calmly knocked down his first three-pointer after Fresno Pacific had pulled within three, 26-23, and the very next possession he drilled another trey that gave his team some breathing room with a 32-25 lead with 2:48 to play in the first half.
They were his only two shots of the game, but they served as the front end of a three-point flurry before halftime. Junior guard Kevin Stafford and freshman forward Corey Langerveld each connected from three-point range on the Cougars’ last two first-half possessions, and Azusa Pacific scored the first seven points after halftime to complete a 20-5 run across both halves that spanned more than six minutes of action.
“We’ve been working on floor spacing and floor balance, and we were doing it well early, but we just missed a lot of shots,” Azusa Pacific head coach Justin Leslie said. “When Miller hit those two shots, it just snowballed from there. He really gave us a spark late in the first half, and the team started believing in itself a little more.”
The Cougars led by a 20-point margin at four separate points in the second half, the last time at 68-48 after junior guard Troy Leaf’s free throws with 6:46 left in the game. Over the next four minutes, Fresno Pacific put together 12 consecutive points, finishing with back-to-back treys from Malcolm Griffin and Jackson Carbajal that trimmed the lead to eight points, 68-60, with 3:22 to play.
“When you have a lead late in the game, teams are trying to attack you, and you have to protect the paint in that situation,” Leslie said. “We finally made the adjustment on that and got them out of the lane. Instead of hanging our heads when they do score, we just have to refocus on control what we can control, which is the next play.”
However, with the shot clock winding down on the Cougars’ next possession, Langerveld sank another three-pointer to extend the cushion back into double figures for good. At the other end of the floor, Langerveld took a charge from Griffin, causing the Sunbirds’ leading scorer to foul out of the game with 2:36 remaining after tallying 14 points, four assists, and five turnovers in 24 minutes of action. The Cougars hit nine-of-10 free throws over the final 2:15, finishing the game 22-of-25 from the line to keep the game out of reach.
Leaf led all scorers with 25 points, his fourth 20-point game of the year, and he spearheaded a defensive effort that led to 10 steals for the Azusa Pacific defense. Leaf and Stafford each collected three steals, helping lead to a 14-13 edge in points off turnovers.
All but one point of Griffin’s scoring production came in the final 12 minutes of the game, after the Cougars had built up their big lead. Griffin was held to just one point until he came up with a steal and converted with a mid-range jumper at the other end. Phil Jackson came off the bench for 20 points to carry Fresno Pacific’s scoring load, and Jonathan Jefferson added 11 points for the Sunbirds, who shot 38 percent (22-for-58) from the field.
The victory was Azusa Pacific’s first in Pacific West Conference play, and it kept Fresno Pacific winless through its first three league games of the season. The Cougars, who resume conference play in early January, brought their overall record to 4-4 with the win.
“We need to be mentally tougher, because all of our games are going to be just as difficult as this and nobody’s going to give you anything,” Leslie said. “All the teams in our league are good teams with good coaches who are going to make good adjustments. We have to go out there and take advantage of what they give us, and that’s something that comes with growth and maturity. We can speed that process up by having a zoom focus every day in practice to get better.”
Not only did the Cougars win, they turned around some of their most troublesome areas so far this year, posting a 44-35 rebounding edge over one of the PacWest’s best rebounding teams. Leading the way with a game-high 13 rebounds was sophomore forward Sharif Watson, who had three double-doubles last year but hadn’t pulled in more than four rebounds in any game this season. Watson scored 12 points to finish with a double-double, and senior forward Bertram Hall added eight rebounds to go with a 10-point scoring effort.
“To out-rebound a team like that by nine says a lot for us,” Leslie said. “We didn’t shoot particularly well, but the rebounding gave us that margin for error. We pursued the ball very well and got ourselves multiple opportunities to score second-chance points.”
Azusa Pacific scored the first eight points of the game, but a 12-4 Sunbirds run tied the game at 12-12 with 8:38 left in the half. Brown, whose only other appearance in a college game was three minutes of action in the Cougars’ loss to Cal Poly Pomona, came in with the Cougars holding a two-point edge, 20-18, with 6:29 left. Within a minute of entering the game, he grabbed an offensive rebound, and two minutes after that, he knocked down the first of two consecutive three-pointers that turned Azusa Pacific’s 26-23 lead into a 39-28 halftime advantage.
The Cougars host Eastern New Mexico in a non-conference matchup Wednesday, Dec. 18, at 7:30 p.m. After that, the calendar turns to 2014 before Azusa Pacific resumes PacWest play by hosting Holy Names University at 2 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 4 and Notre Dame de Namur on Monday, Jan. 6.