Men (1-1) and women’s (2-0) basketball began their seasons as both teams played home and away games against the Eagles this weekend.

After nearly a year-long hold, Azusa Pacific athletics were finally back on display this past weekend as men and women’s basketball competed against their most-heated rival in the Biola Eagles. While both squads earned a victory, it was women’s basketball that shined bright.  They began their season 2-0 and outscored the Eagles by an average of 10 points in those contests.

With games finally being back for Azusa’s campus and community, there is excitement in the air. If these early basketball games are any indication of what is to come during this unconventional season, Cougar fans should be in for a major treat. Here are some early observations for both teams from last week’s action.

Women’s basketball: Keep the good times rolling

The last decade has treated this program well. Between 2010-19, women’s basketball has held a win-loss record of 223-75. They have won an NAIA Championship, three PacWest titles in four years, an NCAA Division II West Regional Championship and advanced to the Elite Eight after the most dramatic buzzer-beater in APU history.

Since the turn of the decade, it appears they intend to uphold the precedent set before them on the court this year. 

They have played 18 games in total since the start of 2020. Ultimately, competing in the NCAA DII tournament was taken away from this squad after the COVID-19 scare in March, but before this, they were 16-2 in the new year. And after 321 days of not competing in a meaningful game of basketball, the Cougars added two more victories to their arsenal after this weekend’s success.

On Friday, the Cougars traveled to La Mirada, Calif. to face Biola on their home court. While in the first quarter the Cougars only scored two baskets, they would wake up in the second and score 24 points in 10 minutes. However, it was the third quarter when APU took control of the game and outscored their opponent 22-10. The final result ended up being a tight 66-63 finish, but it was on Saturday when APU showed what they are fully made of.

They were magnificent on the court, shooting 47.4% in the game, including 40.9% from behind the arc. Again, the third quarter proved to strengthen their lead as APU outscored the Eagles 20-8. When the final whistle blew and the fanless stadium shut their lights off, the Cougars secured a second consecutive victory, this time by the score of 66-49.

These first few games potentially showed us who could be the next star for this program. With a multitude of leaders leaving the roster after last season, including point guard Zoe March and Savanna and Daylee Hanson, transfer Kayla Shaw proved she could fill that role as not only a top scorer but also a team leader. A senior coming from the University of Delaware, she averaged 18.5 points in her sole two games as a Cougar, which led the team this weekend.

Men’s basketball: Adversity early on

Men’s basketball has not played a game or an exhibition since March, similar to the women’s basketball team. In Friday’s game, this was evident. 

Last year against PacWest opponents, the highest point total that the Cougars allowed — disregarding the 96 points given up to Chaminade — was 82. In fact, they did it twice, once against Hawai’i Hilo, and the other against Biola in the final game of their season. So, when you see the Eagles put up 86 points in a season opener against APU, it catches your attention.

One of the biggest reasons for this was the Cougars’ lackluster interior defense. They allowed Biola to score 44 of their points in the paint, compared to Azusa’s 22. The rebounding numbers are also telling, as the Eagles outboarded the Cougars 46-35.

Heading into their second game of the series, aggressiveness on the defensive end was a focal point in securing a win. They did much better, especially in the first half. They began the game on a 20-3 run, and at the half, their lead was set by 15. Yet, they had to face adversity as the Eagles made it only a seven-point deficit early into the second half.

It was the Cougars bench that proved to be the key to their first win of the season. Not only was that unit’s defensive effort vital, but their scoring was also important as they outscored Biola’s bench 23-8.

Senior guard Mandrell Worthy’s performance may have been the highlight of the night. Playing his first home game in three years due to a lingering knee injury, Mandrell secured a double-double by scoring 13 points and grabbing 12 boards, which was the second-highest point total for APU Saturday.

Worthy’s recovery from injury should be described through a single word: adversity. Overcoming that exact word, as the 77-68 finish proves, will be essential to men’s basketball continued PacWest dominance. 

The chemistry may not be there fully, but the confidence for each player will come throughout each game this season. In order for the Cougars to not be fazed by the COVID-19-related circumstances that every collegiate program will face, they must fight through such hardship.

Both men and women’s basketball will continue their seasons with a series against Concordia Irvine this upcoming weekend on Friday and Saturday. Fans can watch those games live, and for free, here.