This article was originally published in ZU News.
The Felix Events Center was the loudest its been since Midnight Madness, which took place before the Cougars’ first game of the season. A total of 1,948 students, parents, and rival spectators filled the gym to watch the first men’s basketball game between Azusa Pacific and Biola in four years. The hype had built up for months and the teams did not disappoint as APU rallied to an 82-76 victory.
Senior forward Corey Langerveld was one of the only players on the team that had played Biola before, in his freshmen year.
“I almost didn’t get to experience this rivalry again. There was a lot of intensity, which is good for us. If I remember correctly, there were more people here when I played them my freshmen year, but that game wasn’t during break,” Langerveld said. “It meant a lot to us that so many students came back early to watch the game. We were worried that no one was going to be here. I thank The ZU for rallying so many people and getting them out here.”
Sophomore guard Mandrell Worthy was equally excited about the game.
“It was a great atmosphere. I love playing in rivalry games. Everyone was hyped and there was a lot of adrenaline. I can’t wait for the next time we play them,” Worthy said.
This was the 104th meeting between the two schools, and the Cougars now hold a 56-48 lead in the all-time match-up rivalry.
Worthy led the team with 21 points. He also had eight rebounds, three assists, and two steals.
“We play as a unit. My teammates found me and I made shots, but it’s all because of them. They created shots for me,” Worthy said.
The rest of the team didn’t shoot quite as well as Worthy. The team shot 35.8 percent overall and 20.0 percent from beyond the arc.
“I can’t believe we shot that bad, especially in the first half. We had a lot of great looks that just wouldn’t go. To shoot 35 percent and still score in the 80’s… that’s a fluke,” head coach Justin Leslie said. “It was the rebounding. We kept crashing and got the misses. We had 25 offensive rebounds. It wasn’t pretty, but good teams have to find ways to win and that was our way tonight.”
The Cougars struggled in the first half, as Biola opened up a nine-point lead. APU was able to come back and tie it up 32-32 going into halftime.
“We weren’t doing a good job of containing them early on. We just had to make some adjustments. They were scoring a bit too consistently. Selom and Petar rebounded well and contained them in the last few minutes. It was just our guys digging in and getting a stop and then making the appropriate play on offense,” Leslie said.
Each team traded shots in the second half, with a total of nine ties in the first 15 minutes of the half. With a little over four minutes left and the score tied 65-65, the Cougars defense buckled down and the offense went off, allowing the team to build a lead as big as 11 points.
“Players make plays. I’d love to say I made some great play calls, but it was them. Darien [McClain] made some great passes and had that lay-up. Mandrell [Worthy] outsprinted them for the ball which turned into a fast break dunk. Petar [Kutlesic] crashed the rim and got a tip-in. Selom [Mawugbe] got a tip-in,” Leslie said. “They pulled together and made the appropriate play. It showed a lot of maturity to go out there and take advantage of what was given.”
Worthy credited the defense for getting stops while Langerveld said the team was waiting for a run like that.
“We knew we had to make a run sooner or later. We burst through that wall. We had to just lock down on defense and then make smart offensive plays, which is what we did,” Langerveld said.
The team had four players score in the double digits on the night. Langerveld had 15 points, senior forward Petar Kutlesic and junior guard Darien McClain both had 13 points.
“We’re a deep team, a balanced team. We have lots of guys who are capable of scoring points in different ways,” Leslie said. “I’m always happy when different guys have the opportunity to step up. They all play a valuable role. They’re critical to our success. Mandrell off the bench tonight was just fantastic. Ben [Taufahema] came off the bench and made those two-three’s in the first half, which kept us in striking distance. It was exciting to see them come in and have an impact. I was very pleased with the bench.”
The Cougars improve to 11-5 on the season and a 7-1 record in the PacWest, currently sitting at first place in the conference. APU will have to perform near-perfectly as they prepare for another one of their biggest rivals, Cal Baptist, in Riverside on Jan. 13. The matchup will be a battle for first-place as the Lancers are currently 12-2 on the season and 5-1 in conference play.