AZUSA, Calif. -- With a quick start and a huge advantage in scoring in the paint, Azusa Pacific was able to withstand a few nervous moments in the final two minutes of an 81-74 victory over Hawai‘i Pacific Saturday night at the Felix Event Center.
For the first time since Jan. 24, when it handed Pacific West Conference-leading California Baptist its only defeat of the year, Azusa Pacific posted a positive rebounding margin (38-32), and the Cougars finished the game with a 44-20 edge in scoring in the paint.
“We had numerous plays tonight by a number of different guys who gave us second-effort points.” Azusa Pacific head coach Justin Leslie said. “It’s easy to quit when a shot goes up, but they kept battling and got us an extra five or six possessions in the game that led to points. Any time we can get 15 second-chance points, that can really get us rolling quickly.”
The Cougars led by double digits for nearly all of the second half until Leif Rodney’s tip-in with 1:57 left sparked a quick 8-2 Sea Warrior run that closed the margin to 71-67 with just under a minute to play. From that point on, 15 of the final 17 points of the game were scored at the free throw line, including a three-shot foul converted by Malte Ziegenhagen with 12 seconds left that chopped a six-point Azusa Pacific lead in half to 77-74.
However, junior guards Troy Leaf and Robert Sandoval each knocked down a pair of free throws in the last 10 seconds around Long’s last-gasp three-point miss for the final 81-74 margin.
“In the last two games, Troy and Robert have combined for 24 assists, and if they’re getting in the lane, it makes it a lot easier for our big guys to get rolling,” Leslie said. “They got our big guys playing comfortably early on, and the advantage inside was really a combination of our guards making better decisions and our posts finishing. They’re being patient and recognizing where their moves are, and that’s been a team element.”
Leaf scored a team-high 19 points, hitting 11-of-13 free throws, including six in a row after missing a pair from the line with 1:38 left that could have pushed the lead back to 10. Instead, Ziegenhagen made it a five-point game, 69-64, with his fourth three-pointer of the game, and Darryl Jones, Jr. answered a Tyler Monroe dunk in transition with a three-point play that pulled Hawai‘i Pacific within four, 71-67.
Long, who entered the game as the Pacific West Conference’s leading scorer at just over 20 points per game, poured in 24 points, and Ziegenhagen matched him with 24, as well. However, no other Sea Warriors cracked double figures, and Leaf was one of four Cougars with at least 10 points. Hawai‘i Pacific did not have a single player shoot 50 percent or better in the game, as the Sea Warriors combined to hit 38 percent (21-for-56) from the field.
“Our first halves the last two games have been really solid. We frustrated them early on tonight, and any time a team doesn’t score, their effort on defense after that isn’t nearly as good,” Leslie said. “We’ve really been working hard on how we defend, and we’ve been able to go out and put it into play. I have to give Hawai‘i Pacific a lot of credit, especially Justin Long, who is a gifted scorer who came to play tonight. We made free throws and didn’t turn the ball over late, and that was a really positive way to finish.”
A 7-0 run late in the first half gave Azusa Pacific a 13-point lead, and the Cougars took a 39-28 edge into halftime. Hawai‘i Pacific did not get closer than 10 points until Ziegenhagen knocked down his third three-pointer of the game to cut the margin to 62-53 with 6:18 remaining in the game, and the first time HPU got within eight was with less than two minutes to play in the game.
Leaf converted a three-shot foul on the game’s opening possession to give Azusa Pacific the early lead, and the Cougars answered a Justin Long three with a 7-0 run on the next three possessions for its first double-digit lead, 16-5, with 15:05 left in the first half. After Long knocked down a jumper with three minutes left to cut the lead to six, Leaf capped another 7-0 run that extended the lead to 39-26.
Leaf added four assists to go with five rebounds, and Sandoval dished out a game-high five assists while scoring 12. Monroe came off the bench for 14 points and seven rebounds, and Watson added 10 points, six boards and two blocks. Senior forward Bertram Hall hauled in a game-high eight rebounds for the Cougars, who were out-rebounded by a huge 43-24 margin in the teams’ first meeting two weeks ago in Hawai‘i.
With the win, Azusa Pacific improves to 13-9 overall and 9-7 in Pacific West Conference play, while Hawai‘i Pacific falls to 12-10 overall, 7-9 in the PacWest. The Cougars host two more PacWest games next week, taking on Hawai‘i Hilo Monday night and Point Loma next Saturday before wrapping up the regular season with two games in the Bay Area.