AZUSA, Calif. -- Although Azusa Pacific wore throwback uniforms to honor the alumni from the program’s storied past, it was the current Cougars who gave a lively Felix Event Center crowd of 2,819 the type of victory that gets talked about for years with a 78-65 win over previously-unbeaten and No. 12-ranked California Baptist.
“We fed off the crowd’s energy, and against a California Baptist team that plays with a ton of energy and emotion, to have our crowd sustain their energy throughout the game was a great way to keep us going,” Azusa Pacific head coach Justin Leslie. “That first half was our best defensive half in years. We were consistent in our effort defensively, and even though we’ve played well in stretches a lot of different times, this game was gratifying in how many different plays were made during the game.”
Junior guard Troy Leaf was perfect from long-range, drilling all five of the three-pointers he attempted to lead all scorers with 21 points, and junior point guard Robert Sandoval knocked down his only three-point attempt as he scored 18 points to go with a game-high seven assists.
“We love playing in this environment, and this was a game I won’t forget,” Sandoval said. “The fans brought the energy for us, our coaches prepared us well, and we played with a lot of heart because we wanted it.”
After building a huge 16-point halftime lead, 42-26, the Cougars seemingly answered every California Baptist challenge with a back-breaking three. Azusa Pacific made five-of-seven from three-point range in the second half, knocking down all five in the final seven minutes of the game. CBU never got comfortable shooting from outside, making just six-of-26 (23 percent) three-pointers on the game. The Lancers’ leading scorer, freshman Ryan Berg, tallied 15 points but he was held to a four-of-13 shooting performance from the field.
Starting at the eight-minute mark, the Cougars left the Lancers no margin for error by hitting seven straight shots, which included threes from Sandoval and Leaf on back-to-back possessions after Anthony Cosentino cut the lead to 58-52 with 7:19 to play.
A long Stafford trey from several feet behind the three-point line was followed by another Leaf three, and sophomore forward Sharif Watson slammed home the exclamation point with a dunk that pushed the lead to 74-58 with less than three minutes left. Sophomore forward Jared Zoller rebounded his own free throw miss in the closing seconds and drilled a three-pointer to finish off the Cougars’ scoring.
Watson finished with 13 points, six rebounds, three blocks, and four steals, while senior center Bertram Hall came off the bench for six points and 11 rebounds to lead Azusa Pacific to a 37-31 edge on the boards. The leading scorer for California Baptist was Cosentino, who tallied 17 points and seven rebounds, while Berg added 15 points and Kevin Crabb hauled in a game-high 13 rebounds.
“We knew that if we could consistently do the little things in this game, we could win,” Hall said. “Because of that, we came into this game with a lot of confidence.”
One of Leaf’s threes broke a 15-15 tie seven minutes into the game, and it was followed by three-pointers from junior guard Kevin Stafford and Watson during an 11-0 run that tilted the game towards Azusa Pacific for good. A Watson dunk finished the outburst, which put the Cougars up 26-15 with eight minutes left in the first half. In fact, that run was part of a longer stretch lasting over seven minutes in which California Baptist didn’t make a shot from the field.
“Coach got us ready to jump on them early so we could take away some of their energy,” Watson said. “We knew we would have to win this game on the defensive end, and we just had to stay the course and stay solid on defense. The points would eventually come if we did that. Showing that we can defend the best teams in the league is a big step for our team.”
After a Berg three-pointer cut the first-half margin to 26-21, Azusa Pacific put together a 16-5 run over the final seven minutes of the half to take a 16-point edge into halftime, 42-26. The Cougars played the first 4:30 of the second half with a lead in double-figures until Cosentino sank a trey to spark a 12-2 run that trimmed the margin to six points, 50-44, with 13:39 left. The lead bounced between six and 10 points until Stafford’s long three-pointer with 4:23 remaining.
At halftime of the game, Azusa Pacific honored its 1997-98 men’s basketball team, which posted a 34-5 record and became the first team in program history to advance to the semifinals of the NAIA national tournament.
“It’s always special for me when alumni come back, because this place means a lot to me,” said Leslie, who played on that 1997-98 and participated in the recognition ceremony. “Those guys who were here tonight had a lot to do with the Felix Event Center getting built. There have been a lot of great teams over the years that have invested their effort and time to build this program into what it is today, so I’m very proud to be a part of it. I take the responsibility of being a coach very seriously, to honor those guys, and to make sure our players understand those who came before them and what it means to represent them.”
With the win, Azusa Pacific improves to 10-6 overall and 6-4 in PacWest play, while California Baptist falls to 16-1 overall and 10-1 in the PacWest. Both teams are headed to the Hawaiian Islands for three games in a five-day stretch next weekend, to be followed by the rematch between Azusa Pacific and California Baptist in Riverside on Saturday, Feb. 8.