Led by an offensive exhibit on behalf of their guards, the Cougars extend their win streak to seven games.
Azusa Pacific makes it seven in a row after a 77-64 victory over Hawai’i Hilo at home on Thursday night. The Cougars starting backcourt combined for 38 points after junior Bryce Sloan and sophomore Hayden Gray finished with 19 points.
It was a slow offensive start for Azusa Pacific as Hawai’i Hilo immediately brought full-court pressure to start the game. Defensive pressure from the Vulcans forced eight turnovers in the first half and allowed them to control the game. The first half saw eight lead changes, although the Cougars only led for 2:40.
Despite their defensive intensity, the Vulcans were outrebounded by the Cougars 27-20 in the first half and outscored on second-chance points 11 to two. Later, head coach Peter Bond explained just what this physicality from the Cougars meant.
“It says we’ve got guys who are going to give effort from all the positions. We got 18 offensive rebounds but I think 13 of them were from our wings and guards, so we had guys consistently going to the glass. It’s hard to do, it’s hard to consistently crash. It’s a mindset and an effort thing and they did a great job at it,” Bond said.
With 1:56 remaining in the first half, the Vulcans led the Cougars 30-25. A series of defensive stops and missed shots allowed Bond to call a timeout with 30 seconds remaining in the half. Following the timeout, an isolation three-pointer in the corner from Gray put the Cougars within two as time expired, making it 30-28.
Heading into halftime, Bond noted that missed shots were a big reason for his team’s first-half deficit.
“A lot of times I don’t like to simplify things this much, but we were missing shots we normally make. We were getting good open looks. We were making good reads. They were doing some things that were slowing us down offensively, but it was one of those where coming into halftime it’s like ‘Guys as bad as we shot it, we’re down two, we’re in great shape,’” Bond said.
The second half saw the Cougars flip the switch offensively and the floodgates were opened. APU started the second half with an immediate four-point play from redshirt sophomore forward Nate Kleppe, who sunk a three from the top of the key as he was fouled.
Kleppe’s four-point play set the tone of the second half; APU had found its groove on offense. The Cougars took a 35-32 lead with 18:34 left after a three-pointer from junior forward Ken West. After that point, the Cougars never lost their lead, possessing it for 18:54 total in the second half.
As their offense began to develop, APU saw nice contributions from their starters including West, who finished with 12 points and six rebounds. Senior forward Justin Hemsley also finished with 12 points and nine rebounds, marking the fourth Cougar to score in double figures.
APU outscored Hawai’i Hilo 49-34 in the second half. Despite their offensive production, coach Bond acknowledged the defensive pressure put on by the Vulcans.
“They’ve been consistent with that early in games and if they get down, our guys did a really good job handling it and getting the ball out quick and attacking the other end,” Bond said.
With this win, the Cougars move to 19-6 overall and 14-4 in the conference. They also avenged their 59-68 loss at Hawai’i Hilo on Jan 18. Despite avenging the loss, Sloan noted this game was no different for the Cougars.
“I mean it’s a big game, but just like any other. We come out to play basketball, have fun, and we can beat near anybody,” Sloan said.
The Cougars also added to their 11-2 home record and keep Hawai’i Hilo winless in Azusa since before 2014. Gray acknowledged how tough the Cougars are at home, particularly on the defensive end.
“I mean I think it’s a tough place to play. It’s not like a lot of gyms in our conference. We practice here every day and we’re used to it. I think on the defensive end, we are much more effective at home right now, we’ve got to get that figured out on the road, but we are sitting in gaps and making it tough for the other team so that’s what you saw in the second half right there,” said Gray.
The Cougars will take on Hawaii Pacific at home on Feb 20 during senior night, before concluding the regular season at Concordia.