The Cougars’ defense was the star in a winning effort against Hawai’i Pacific
Legendary University of Alabama football coach Bear Bryant was quoted as saying, “offense sells tickets, but defense wins championships.” The Azusa Pacific men’s basketball team are playing defense at a high level, and that propelled them to an 80-73 victory at the Felix Event Center against Hawai’i Pacific.
The first half was full of excitement as the teams traded baskets, turnovers and leads. The Cougars’ offense was spread out throughout the half, with almost every player contributing points. The effort was led by sophomore guards Mandrell Worthy and Ben Taufahema, and senior forward Petar Kutlesic, who put up eight, six and seven, respectively. The Sharks’ trio of Darnell Bettis, David Rowlands and Spencer Vering each added seven points.
Not mentioned in the list of Hawai’i Pacific’s top scorers was Niksha Federico, who came into the matchup leading the PacWest in points per game. Federico was limited to only three points in the first half, largely due to the defensive effort by senior forward Corey Langerveld.
“The whole point was to limit his shots, and when you’re given a task or a guy to focus on, I’m not going to say it’s easy, because he’s obviously a great player, but as a player going into the game, knowing that’s what you’re going to do, it’s easier to prepare,” Langerveld said.
The preparation and effort continued into the second half, where Langerveld continued to frustrate Federico. The noticeably shaken Federico finished the night with 10 points, less than half of the 22.5 points that he averaged all season.
The second half was just as tightly contested as the first, as the teams traded scores and stops with each other. With five minutes to go, the teams were only split by a single point, and each basket resulted in a lead change. That is, until Langerveld made a corner three with three minutes left to give the Cougars a little bit of breathing room. The lead was added to by sophomore forward Selom Mawugbe and junior guard Darien McClain.
“I’m trying to get them to understand that they’re a very, very good defensive team. We have a shot to be a special defensive team. We are leading the conference in field goal percentage defense. We make people miss. We just have to keep trusting that. Don’t get discouraged, because if we get stops, it helps our offense because nobody goes back and plays defense as well after if they don’t score,” head coach Justin Leslie said regarding his team’s defensive ability.
Part of the playing good defense is coming up with rebounds, and the big men for the Cougars did that. Kutlesic and junior forward Tyson Kanseyo each came down with eight rebounds over the course of the game.
“[Getting rebounds], it’s everything. Not just with HPU, we’ve learned through our season when we get the boards with our team, we get an advantage. We are such a great transition team, with Darien, Mandrell and Corey, so we get the ball and just run, and that’s where we make our runs, especially towards the end of the second half when teams get tired, that’s where we strike,” Kutlesic explained.
The Cougars’ top scorers for the game were McClain with 16, Kutlesic and Worthy with 15 each and Langerveld, who complimented his defensive effort with 14 points.
Azusa Pacific will meet Point Loma for the second time this season in San Diego this Saturday, after winning the previous matchup 66-55 at Felix Event Center in December. On Thursday, the Cougars will host California Baptist for the final time ever in PacWest play.