AZUSA, Calif. -- Azusa Pacific won a pair of thrilling regular-season matchups, but Point Loma gained the upper hand in Tuesday’s National Christian College Athletic Association West Regional Championship game by keeping the Cougars off the boards as the Sea Lions clinched an NCCAA national tournament berth with an 86-70 win.
Point Loma was led for the second straight night by an impressive performance off the bench from Junior Morgan, who followed a 30-point, 12-rebound effort Monday night against Bethesda in the opening game of the three-team NCCAA West Region tournament with game-highs off the bench of 24 points and nine rebounds. Hayden Lescault added 21 points and hit seven-of-nine shots from the field as PLNU shot 52 percent (28-for-54) overall as a team and hit nine-of-21 (43 percent) three-pointers.
In two regular-season wins over Point Loma, Azusa Pacific averaged 12.5 offensive rebounds and generated a 37-21 scoring margin in second chance points. On Tuesday night, the Sea Lions limited the Cougars to just four offensive boards without any second chance points.
“We talked a lot about how tough it is to beat a good team three times in a year, but what Point Loma did tonight was they came out with more fight and more toughness than we did,” Azusa Pacific head coach Justin Leslie said. “We just didn’t compete at a high level, and this time of year, it’s all about competing and having the will to win. Point Loma got us in catch-up mode, and I have to give them credit because they made free throws and continued answering us in the second half when we started scoring.”
Four Azusa Pacific players finished in double figures, led by junior point guard Robert Sandoval’s 17-point effort. Junior guard Troy Leaf added 15 points, and a team-high four assists, and sophomore forward Jared Zoller came off the bench to score 13 points on four-of-five shooting from the field. Sophomore Sharif Watson added 10 points and tied Morgan for the game-high in rebounds with nine.
Point Loma jumped out to an early double-digit lead with a 13-3 run to open the game, and a pair of Sam Okhotin three-pointers late in the first half gave the Sea Lions leads of 30-12 and 35-16, the latter with just 2:21 left in the first half. Watson threw down a pair of dunks in the final minute of the half, which cut the PLNU lead to 37-24 at halftime, and the Cougars also scored the first four points of the second half to bookend a 10-0 run that pulled Azusa Pacific within nine at 37-28.
“We won a lot of games down the stretch, which was rewarding, but what made it special was that we played team basketball,” Leslie said. “We did a good job of having different guys step up and add to that team success. Another thing that was good over the course of our winning streak was seeing how the things we worked so hard on all year started to pay off down the stretch. I’m proud of the season, and it felt like we took a step forward as a program this year.”
Okhotin scored all 12 of his points on four first-half threes, helping Point Loma to the 13-point halftime edge, and Morgan scored 18 of his 24 points in the second half. Morgan, Lescault, and Okhotin accounted for 57 of the Sea Lions’ 86 points, and both teams limited themselves to just nine turnovers in the game.
Another Watson steal-and-dunk made it a six-point game, 42-36, with 14:50 left, and a Zoller trey with 13:35 remaining got the Cougars within five, 44-39. However, a Hayden Lescault three sparked a 10-2 run that pushed the lead back into double figures midway through the second half. Azusa Pacific cut the lead to nine points twice in the final 11 minutes, but PLNU answered both times on the ensuing possession, using a short Morgan jumper with 7:49 left and a Marek Klassen three-pointer with 5:57 to play sparked the Sea Lions to nine straight points. The Cougars never got closer than 12 points the rest of the way.
The loss snapped Azusa Pacific’s six-game winning streak to end the regular season, dropping the Cougars to a final season record of 17-10, while Point Loma will advance to NCCAA national tournament play in Winona Lake, Ind., with an overall record of 17-11.