Although the defense struggled at times, the Cougars offense kept them in the game in season home finale
The Azusa Pacific men’s basketball team has been known for their shutdown defense all season, but in their final regular season home game, it was their offense that propelled them to victory. The Cougars beat Hawai’i Hilo 95-82 in an unexpected offensive scoring battle on Thursday night in order to improve to a 18-8 overall record (14-4 in conference).
The Cougars led the Vulcans for about 34 minutes of play, but Hawai’i Hilo continued to hang neck-to-neck with the Cougars, and would eventually grab the lead after hitting 58 percent from three-point range (15-of-26).
“Considering Hawai’i Hilo made 15 threes, I’m thankful, and even a little surprised, that we won this game,” head coach Justin Leslie said. “We knew the key for them to beat us was the three-point line, so limiting that was our focus, and we just didn’t do it. I do have to give credit to the group defensively that put together the four-minute stretch that didn’t let them score, because that gave us the double-figure cushion that turned out to be the difference in the game.”
This “cushion” that Leslie referred to came midway through the second half, where APU would go on a 14-0 scoring run, which would prove too difficult for Hilo to comeback from.
The scoring charge was led by junior guard Will Ferris, who scored a career high 22 points on the night. Senior forwards Corey Langerveld and Petar Kutlesic also had solid performances on the night. Langerveld had 16 points, seven rebounds and three steals while Kutlesic had 11 points, nine rebounds and eight assists.
“Will Ferris is playing great basketball right now. He’s shooting the ball with confidence, he’s playing with a smile on his face and I thought he was a huge key for us,” Leslie said. “Corey and Petar are steady. They make the plays when they are there, they have a lot of the little things, the intangibles that seniors are supposed to do that led to success. I was proud for them to be tonight. They’ve had fantastic careers here, they’ve been a part of some amazing basketball accomplishments and I’m honestly looking forward to what more we can do.”
A total of six players on the team had scored at least 10 points or more in more to keep APU in the driver’s seat. In addition to Ferris and the two seniors, sophomore guard Mandrell Worthy had 14, sophomore forward Selom Mawugbe had 13 and junior guard Darien McClain had 10.
The ability for a lot of guys to score has been nothing new for the Cougars. Kutlesic was happy with how the team performed offensively.
“That’s been the story of our season. We are a balanced team and I’m really happy to see a lot of guys contributing and scoring. Six guys scoring 10 or more points is awesome,” Kutlesic said.
Langerveld explained that even though the defense had struggled, the team never let it bring them down on the other side of the ball, which was something that the team had struggled with earlier in the season.
“In the past, when we’re not playing defense, we really struggle on offense. Tonight was a night where even though we were really struggling on defense, we were able to keep scoring and that just kept us in the game and kept us confident. The difference today was that we hung with it on offense and didn’t get discouraged from poor defense,” Langerveld said. “A win is a win.”
In regards to Senior Night, both Langerveld and Kutlesic are still processing that they just played their final home game in their APU basketball career. Nonetheless, they have their eyes set on the bigger picture and know that the team still has a lot more work to do.
“The first thing that surprised me about Senior Night was how quick this day happened. It was a different feeling preparing for this game, and it was a cool experience that just came too quick. It’s hard for it to sink in because we have so much more we want to accomplish this season,” Langerveld said.
“You never think Senior Night is going to happen to you, and I don’t think it has even hit me yet. Getting the win was all that mattered to me,” Kutlesic said.
The Cougars have two more regular season games to play on the road before the PacWest Conference Tournament begins on March 1. On Feb. 22, the Cougars will play at Hawai’i Pacific and on Feb. 24, they will wrap up the regular season at Chaminade. At this point, they are fully aware that they will need to win out in order to put themselves in a good position for the tournament.
“We know we have to win,” Leslie said. “I told the guys that we have to win out after Biola. Nothing has changed. The pressure is on and this is that time where we just have to deliver. The postseason is here.”