SAN DIEGO, Calif. -- Sophomore forward Sharif Watson’s layup with just a half-second left lifted Azusa Pacific to a thrilling 75-74 win over Point Loma Friday night, stunning a euphoric Point Loma crowd of 1,286 into jaw-dropping silence just seconds after Junior Morgan had put the Sea Lions in front with a go-ahead layup.
Morgan’s layup with 9.9 seconds left gave Point Loma a 74-73 edge, its first lead in the final 7:30 of the game, but junior point guard Robert Sandoval drew a collapsing defense to the top of the key at the other end as the final seconds ticked away. His pass through the Point Loma double-team led Watson into the paint for a short uncontested layup off the glass, and the Sea Lions’ desperation full-court heave was well off the mark.
“The only thing I was thinking on that last possession was how we were going to win this game,” Watson said. “We knew our coach wasn’t going to call a timeout, so it was go time. I saw Rob get into a little trouble up top, but he still got the ball to me, and I took the slowest layup of my life.”
The victory was Azusa Pacific’s first true road win of the season, and it came against a Point Loma team which was a perfect 5-0 at home this season entering Friday’s clash. With the win, the Cougars improved to 9-5 overall and 5-3 in Pacific West Conference play, while Point Loma dropped to 10-6 overall and 5-5 in the PacWest.
“Looking at the conference standings, you not only have to defend your home court, you’ve also got to win however you can on the road,” Azusa Pacific head coach Justin Leslie said. “It was a special environment, and it was deafening at times. We had a smaller group of fans, but they were pretty special as well. The Zu was on their A game, and they stuck with it.”
Watson only finished with seven points to finish as the Cougars’ sixth-leading scorer, but he grabbed a game-high 12 rebounds to lead Azusa Pacific to a commanding 39-30 advantage on the boards. He also dished out four assists and registered two blocked shots, his sixth game this year with two or more blocks.
“I’ve never really been a guy that believes I need the ball in my hands to impact the game,” Watson said. “I’ll do whatever I can, whether it’s defense, rebounding, passing, or scoring. I try to let the game come to me, and I’ll do whatever my team needs me to do to get the win.”
The wild finish was a fitting end to a game that featured eight ties, 12 lead changes, and countless swings of momentum throughout. Junior guard Kevin Stafford was four-for-four on three-pointers in the first half, hitting consecutive treys on the Cougars’ first two possessions before repeating the back-to-back triples to cap an 8-0 run midway through the opening half. When sophomore forward Jared Zoller knocked down his second three-pointer of the game with 3:40 left in the half, it gave Azusa Pacific eight first-half treys and a 42-38 lead. The Cougars didn’t score again in the half, however, and Point Loma took advantage with a 6-0 run that gave the Sea Lions a 44-42 halftime advantage.
At the end of the game, Azusa Pacific was headed towards a similar fate, taking a five-point lead at 73-68 with 3:39 to play on senior forward Tyler Monroe’s dunk. Morgan answered with a layup inside, and the Cougars came up empty on their next four possessions, giving the ball back to the Sea Lions on an offensive foul, a shot clock violation, missed three-pointer, and a turnover at the top of the key with 31 seconds left. By then, Point Loma had cut the lead to one, 73-72, after hitting one-of-two free throws twice in the last two minutes of regulation, and the Cougar turnover allowed Morgan to put PLNU in front with less than 10 seconds to play.
“In the timeout before Point Loma scored at the end, I told the team that if they scored with less than 10 seconds left, we were going to push the ball,” Leslie said. “When Rob got the ball, they took away the first action, and at that point, I knew I couldn’t call a timeout. The ball was either going to be in Rob or Troy’s hands, and when he turned that corner at the top of the key, I couldn’t even watch. I only knew we scored by listening to the crowd.”
Morgan led all scorers with 18 points, and he added 10 rebounds for Point Loma, which also got a 10-rebound effort to go with eight points and five blocks from A.J. Ussery. The Sea Lions shot 58 percent (15-for-25) from the field in the first half, including seven-for-12 from three-point range, but they cooled off to just 36 percent (nine-for-25) from the field and made just three-of-10 threes after halftime.
Watson’s seven-point scoring effort came with the game-high 12 boards, while junior guard Troy Leaf scored 17 points to lead a quartet of Cougars who reached double figures in scoring. Monroe delivered 14 points and seven rebounds off the bench, while Zoller added 13 and Stafford 12 behind a combined seven-for-11 three-point shooting performance.
Zoller and Leaf each hit three-pointers during a 10-0 run to open the second half, holding PLNU scoreless on its first eight second-half possessions. Morgan finally ended the scoring drought nearly four minutes into the half, sparking a run of eight consecutive points that tied the game at 52-52 with 14:46 remaining.
“We knew we would be able to find ways to score, but we had to get stops,” Leslie said. “At halftime, I recounted all the different one-possession games we’ve had at Point Loma in the past, and I asked the team which possession in the second half was going to be the one that wins it. That’s winning basketball, to go on the road and get a string of stops like that.”
With 10:23 left, a Marek Klassen three gave Point Loma a 61-56 edge, its largest lead of the game, but the Cougars immediately responded with an impressive three-possession series of defensive stops followed by layups from Monroe, Zoller, and Watson to move back in front, 62-61.
“We talked a lot about sustaining our energy throughout the game,” Leslie said. “We couldn’t afford to go flat during any stretch, and even though they made a run in the second half to get a big lead, we answered right back. We showed some definite signs of maturity and growth tonight.”
Azusa Pacific returns home for two games next week, taking on four-time defending PacWest champion Dixie State on Monday, Jan. 20, and current conference leader, unbeaten California Baptist on Friday, Jan. 24. Both games are scheduled to tip off at 7:30 p.m.