AZUSA, Calif. -- In danger of dropping consecutive games for the first time all season, No. 12-ranked Dixie State executed when it needed to down the stretch to escape the Felix Event Center with an 82-75 victory over Azusa Pacific Monday night.
Junior center Zach Robbins scored 16 of his game-high 27 points in the second half to lead the Red Storm, which discovered early on that it was in for a much different type of game against Azusa Pacific than the lopsided affair that took place nine days earlier in St. George when Dixie State hit seven of its first eight three-pointers and jumped out to a 25-point halftime lead in an 87-63 win over the Cougars.
“We’ve had a huge amount of growth from the last time we played them,” Azusa Pacific head coach Justin Leslie said. “I’m proud of our effort tonight, but we just didn’t do enough to win the game. It’s such a fine line between success and failure with these top teams, and Dixie State made more plays down the stretch.”
What did take a significant amount of time to materialize was the Red Storm rally, which came in the form of a 10-0 run that finally put Dixie State in front after Azusa Pacific had led by as many as 11 points in the first half and still sat at nine points, 62-53, following junior guard Troy Leaf’s putback with 12:46 remaining in the game.
However, the four-time defending Pacific West Conference champions didn’t wilt, answering immediately with a layup in transition from DeQuan Thompson, the first of 10 consecutive points that gave the Red Storm a 63-62 lead with 8:53 to play. The lead changed hands four more times over the next five minutes, and Louis Garrett knocked down a pair of free throws with three minutes left to break a 72-72 tie and push Dixie State ahead for good.
“They’ve won the league four times in a row, and there’s just that level of pride they wear in how they conduct their business,” Leslie said. “They’re a good team, a smart team, and they were focused. I thought we competed and executed well, but the bottom line was we just didn’t make quite enough of those hustle plays. There were loose balls we could have had and open shots that were there for us, but we just missed them.”
After shooting 50 percent (16-for-32) from the field in the first half, Azusa Pacific cooled to 33 percent (11-for-33) after halftime, including a 12 percent (2-for-17) clip from three-point range in the second half. Senior forward Tyler Monroe was one of four Cougars in double figures with a team-high 17 points, while Leaf added 12 points, five rebounds, and a game-high seven assists.
With the loss, Azusa Pacific drops to 9-6 overall and 5-4 in PacWest play, while the Red Storm go to 14-2 overall and 8-2 in the PacWest as they bounced back from Saturday’s loss at California Baptist. Azusa Pacific is the only team Dixie State has faced coming off a loss this season, and the Cougars return to action Friday night to host undefeated, nationally-ranked, and PacWest-leading California Baptist.
“We’re going to have a chance to win if we play our best game Friday, and it’s going to be a great environment with a lot of alumni back on campus along with fantastic student representation,” Leslie said. “It’s going to be a special opportunity to come out and play, and our last two games have solidified the fact that we are going to be able to win these types of tough games that we keep getting into in this league. We were in a tough game again tonight after winning at Point Loma last Friday, and now we need to pick ourselves back up and be ready again this Friday night.”
Although Azusa Pacific missed free throws on four consecutive possessions ticking down to the three-minute mark, junior guard Robert Sandoval still brought the Cougars within one at 76-75 with a minute left. After Robbins drilled two free throws to give Dixie a three-point cushion with 36 seconds remaining, Azusa Pacific had three looks at a game-tying three-pointer on the ensuing possession. However, all three were off the mark, and Robbins hauled in the rebound on the final miss before sealing the game with four free throws in the final 14 seconds.
Robbins, a 61 percent free throw shooter on the season entering Monday’s game, hit 13-of-14 from the line, including a perfect 10-for-10 after halftime. He added a game-high 11 rebounds to go with his 27 points, and Thompson and Garrett each added 15 points for the Red Storm.
Sophomore forward Sharif Watson sparked Azusa Pacific early on, scoring the Cougars’ first four points along with one of his five blocked shots in the first two minutes of the game. Watson’s steal and breakaway dunk with 10:40 left in the half sparked a 14-2 run which included a pair of three-pointers from freshman forward Corey Langerveld. The second Langerveld trey gave the Cougars a 29-19 edge with 7:01 left, and the lead grew to 11 points twice in the half before Robbins was able to tip in a missed layup just before time expired in the half to cut the Azusa Pacific lead to 44-37 at the break.
Watson, who joined Monroe with 10 first-half points, finished with 12 points, a team-high seven rebounds, five blocks, and four steals, and Sandoval added 15 points on six-of-nine shooting.