AZUSA, Calif. -- His outside shot hasn’t been falling, so junior guard Troy Leaf decided to drive his game inside to lead Azusa Pacific to a 75-69 win over Eastern New Mexico Wednesday night at the Felix Event Center.
Leaf hit nine-of-10 shots from inside the three-point line, and he made his way to the free throw line 11 times, where he converted nine attempts to finish with a season-high 30 points for the Cougars. The few times he didn’t have an open look inside against the Greyhounds, he was finding a teammate who did, as he also dished out a game-high seven assists to go with another game-high in rebounds with six.
“When I’m on the ball, it gives me a lot of opportunities to see things I wouldn’t normally see,” Leaf said. “I’m able to get in the paint and distribute to other guys. I try to get as many touches in the paint as I can, because that’s when the defense will collapse and you can make plays for other people.”
After trailing for most of the first half, Azusa Pacific closed out the final two minutes of the period with a modest five-point run to cut Eastern New Mexico’s halftime lead to 35-33. After the break, the Cougars scored the first seven points to take the lead with a 12-0 run that covered five minutes of play across both halves.
Leaf either scored or assisted every basket in the run, hitting his only three-pointer of the game to start the run before setting up junior forward Andy Jones late in the first half, junior guard Kevin Stafford for a three-point play that opened up the second-half scoring, and sophomore forward Sharif Watson for a layup that pushed the Cougars in front, 40-35, with 17:41 left in the game.
“We’ve been good late in first halves consistently this year, but the problem has been that we have been in situations where we have to play well just to get back into those games,” head coach Justin Leslie said. “At halftime, we make a few minor adjustments, and we had some different guys stepping up. We had some plays, both offensively and defensively, where the little things we’ve worked on in practice started to click and build into runs for us.”
The Greyhounds got back within a point on three separate occasions in the middle of the second half, the last time pulling within 50-49 on Lawrence Domingo’s three-point play with 10:22 to play. Leaf answered with a pair of free throws on the ensuing possession to spark a 13-4 run that extended the lead to 10 points, 63-53, on his own layup with 6:47 remaining. In between, he collected two more assists along with a missed layup off the glass that senior forward Tyler Monroe picked up for an easy putback.
“As a team, we realized it was the little things that we didn’t do in the Bay Area that could have won those games,” said Leaf, referencing the Cougars’ PacWest losses on the road earlier this month. “All week leading up to this game we worked on making sure we didn’t miss those opportunities. We’re not so talented that we can just go out there and win games, and we have to realize that taking care of the little things is what’s going to allow us to be successful.”
With less than three minutes to go, Eastern New Mexico came back to trim the margin to three points on back-to-back three-pointers from Rodney Blackmon, a senior guard who entered the game averaging over 21 points per game. Heading into the final five minutes of the game, Blackmon was still in single-digits with just nine points, and the over-50 percent three-point shooter was just two-of-nine beyond the arc until his treys cut Azusa Pacific’s lead to 70-67 with just over two minutes to play.
Leaf got to the foul line again on the next possession, converting one-of-two to make it a four-point game, and after Blackmon missed a three at the other end, Leaf got back to the line and knocked down a pair of free throws to get to 30 points for the fourth time in his career and his first this year. Stafford also knocked down his free throws after another Greyhound three-point miss to help finish off the six-point victory.
“The thing I’m happiest about with Troy is his decision making, because I’ve been tough on him in that area so far this year,” Leslie said. “It’s tough for a scoring guard to do, but there are times you have to let it go and make the extra pass. He had seven assists tonight but easily could have had 10, because there were times he made the right pass and we just missed an open shot.”
Leaf was the only Cougar in double figures, although Monroe contributed eight points off the bench and three others registered seven points each. The Cougars also finished with a positive rebounding margin, controlling the boards by a 36-30 margin against a Greyhounds team that was out-rebounding opponents this year by an average of 3.5 rebounds per game.
“We had some nice games early on in the year, but winning masked a lot of the errors and inefficiencies we had,” Leslie said. “We’ve gathered ourselves and gotten a little tougher, and out-rebounding another team that’s a plus-margin rebounding team on the year helped us a ton. That provided us with more margin for error, which we needed because they scored so many points off our turnovers.”
Despite going just two-of-12 on three-pointers, Azusa Pacific shot 50 percent (12-of-24) in the first half and was better than 60 percent (14-for-23) from the field in the second half to finish at 55 percent for the game. Without the three-point attempts, the Cougars’ two-point field goal percentage was 69 percent (24-for-35), and they also knocked down 21-of-26 free throws to finish above 80 percent at the line for the second straight game.
Eastern New Mexico was led by Blackmon, who scored 10 of his team-high 19 points in the last five minutes, and Cornelius Cammock provided 16 points and a team-high six rebounds off the bench. Cammock and Devone Davis registered three steals each, helping the Greyhounds convert 16 Cougar turnovers into 27 points off turnovers.
With the win, Azusa Pacific improves to 5-4 as it heads into a 16-day Christmas break layoff before its next game, which is a Jan. 4 Pacific West Conference matchup with Holy Names. Eastern New Mexico, which is a member of NCAA Division II’s Lone Star Conference, drops to 4-5 on the year as the Greyhounds are also off from game action until New Year’s Day.