With forward Rodney Epperson and his 24-point average out with an injury suffered in the first 4 minutes of game, Whitfield, who came in averaging 9 points, took over play, scoring 12 second-half points to allow Mountain State to pull away for the victory.
“Whitfield played out of his head,” said Azusa Pacific coach Bill Odell. “He caused match-up problems for us and was a big difference in the game.”
Senior forward Mersad Terzic, who has never had a good shooting performance in 5 previous contests in the Felix Event Center, found his touch tonight, pouring in 21 points as well, canning 7-of-11 shots, including 4 from beyond the arc. His back-to-back treys less than 7 minutes into the second half gave Mountain State the lead for good at 57-53.
In a rare move, Azusa Pacific went to a zone defense only to have Terzic and Whitfield torch the nets as MSU pushed its lead to 69-60 forcing Azusa Pacific into a sense of urgency over the final 10 minutes.
“Call me an idiot,” said a disappointed Odell. “I made a mistake. We should not have gone to that zone.”
For 30 minutes, the game lived up to the typical billing of a No. 1 vs. No. 2 with 13 lead changes and 13 tied scores. Neither team led by more than 5 until MSU put together its game-deciding stretch run.
“Ability-wise we’re not that far behind them,” said Odell, “but their experience showed down the stretch. They made big plays and knocked down free throws. We didn’t. We should have been there, and this game should have come down to the final 30 seconds and whoever had the ball in their hands. I’m disappointed how we played.”
Indeed the Cougars of Beckley, W. Va., clutched up by making 17 of its final 27 shots (.630) with Terzic and Whitfield combining on a 9-for-13 clip. Meanwhile Azusa Pacific shot just 33% (25-for-77) from the floor for the game and missed 8-of-16 free throws in the final 12 minutes.
Mountain State closed the first half on a 6-0 run to assume a 39-37 cushion at halftime. Azusa Pacific’s All-Amercian forward Lance Soderberg scored 12 of his 16 points in the first half and finished with a game-high 13 rebounds. For the game, junior guard Demario Butler led Azusa Pacific with 19 points.
Mountain State improves to 7-0, while Azusa Pacific falls to 1-1.