Cal State Dominguez Hills reached the .500 plateau Saturday night, and it finally escaped the final few minutes with room to breathe.
The Toros, whose average margin in any game, win or lose, has been seven points, used five three-point shots in the first 12 minutes of the second half to help beat visiting Azusa Pacific University, 71-54.
With its 2-8 record, Azusa Pacific didn't figure to give the Toros (4-4) much of a challenge, but the pesky Cougars, despite 17 first-half turnovers, did not let the Toros get too far out of reach until the final minutes. Dominguez Hills hit 12 of 16 free-throw attempts in the bonus to hold off the Cougars.
"They're getting better," Dominguez Hills Coach Dave Yanai said about his team after the game. "They're learning how to take a four or five-point lead and expand on it."
Yanai has said all along that the Toros, a team with only one returning starter from last year, will have its spasmodic moments until it gels. In many ways, Saturday night's victory still underscored the fact that Dominguez Hills has yet to really have a breather from start to finish.
Junior center Anthony Blackmon, who had a game-high 21 points, alluded to that earlier in the week when he said it was time for the Toros to "put somebody away."
Well, Dominguez Hills won by 17 points, and yes, it trailed only once, briefly early in the game. Still, this is a team that appears determined to keep its following a little nervous. As an example, Azusa Pacific trailed by only four points with 4:39 to play.
But then the Toros outscored the Cougars, 15 to 3.
Earlier in the year Cal State Dominguez Hills recorded an 84-66 win over visiting San Francisco State. But that game, like this one, was no runaway despite the final score.
"We're not an overpowering team," Yanai said. "It's going to be a process of learning how to handle these four- and five-point leads. We didn't have that ability two or three weeks ago."
Dominguez Hills is looking more and more like the team that Yanai wants it to be, despite a few breakdowns offensively in the first half.
Yanai was particularly critical of the team's rebounding. The Toros were out-rebounded, 37-26.
And, he said, the team is not on the schedule he had hoped for.
"I'm not pleased with our defense," he said. "It could be better. We broke down."
Still, he has to like his chances in the next few weeks. The Toros play host to Cal State Hayward on Dec. 29 and Olivet Nazarene on New Year's Eve, two games they is favored to win. If the Toros break even on a two-game road trip the first week in January (they play Grand Canyon College and Southern Utah State), then the team could take no worse than a 7-5 record into its California Collegiate Athletic Assn. opener in mid-January.
Saturday night the two teams attempted 20 three-point field goals. Each scored five.
But the difference was in the timing. The Toros managed just one field goal in the first four minutes of the second half (a 15-footer by Blackmon). But with Azusa Pacific whittling away at a nine-point Dominguez Hills lead, Blackmon connected from the left corner for a 40-31 lead with 15:13 to go.
Five minutes later, Azusa had cut the Toro lead to four points, but freshman guard Bryan Dell'Amico hit a pair of three-point shots.
Reserve guard Leonard Eaton followed with a pair of three-pointers and Dominguez Hills led 54-46 with seven minutes left.
Dell'Amico finished with 15 points. He hit 7 of 10 free-throw attempts. Senior Roger Coleman added seven steals.
Three Cougars scored in double figures, but the team committed 24 turnovers.