AZUSA, Calif. -- When Azusa Pacific Head Coach T.J. Hardeman voiced concerns about a physical Point Loma Nazarene basketball squad last week, it was not without due cause. Azusa Pacific had to fight a physically demanding contest against the NAIA's no. 9-ranked Point Loma and in the end pulled out a 65-52 victory, mostly through the offensive domination of senior All-American forward Abby Johnson, junior forward Nikita Gordon and senior guard Sarah Leathers.
Leathers sparked an 8-0 Cougar run to start the game with a trey from 15 feet out. But Leathers physically could not do what was needed of Johnson and Gordon, and that was take control of the paint, eliminating the Sea Lions’ size threat.
"We've been ready to battle someone of size, and I thought our bigs came out and gave a great performance" Hardeman said. "Part of the reason the others are open is because teams with size are going to want to collapse on Abby, and that leaves players open for shots."
Because of Point Loma's collapsing defense, Johnson got off to a slow start, but Gordon was able to fill her shoes nicely, going 5-for-8 with 10 points in the first half alone. Her overall 14 points, combined with her 7 rebounds and her 5 assists were crucial to Azusa Pacific's win.
"Nikita had an awesome game," Hardeman added. "[Point Loma] is big. They're longer than we are but I didn't think they were quick enough to guard Nikita."
The only person to put up more scoring than Gordon was Johnson, who seemed to feed off of Gordon's action in the paint, recording 16 points and 4 rebounds against the Sea Lions.
"This is the first match up where we have had with someone with size and long arms and all," Johnson admitted. "Coming into tonight we knew we were going to be challenged down low. So we made sure we covered our basics in practice and work against the high post."
The Cougars went into the half on top, 31-28, and trailed only once in the opening 20 minutes and that was for less than a minute. When they returned, Johnson and Gordon continued to lead an offense that produced 26 of their points in the paint, 14 of those came in the second half alone.
"Abby and I are quite a tandem," Gordon said. "We work the high and low together pretty well and just try to see what's going to work best for us from game to game. I am trying to learn her and she's trying to learn me."
Gordon's talk of learning fits right in with this year's new team and new system. Hardeman is 3-0 as Azusa Pacific's new head coach and players such as freshman forward Kristie Hala'ufia and freshman guard C.J. Hill continue to contribute to the Cougar offense. Hala'ufia posted 7 points and grabbed 6 rebounds against Point Loma while Hill dished out another 5 assists.
"We obviously had to step it up today because the competition was a little thicker tonight than it has been this so far this season," Johnson said. "These are the times when our chemistry and team communication really play a part in our success."
The Cougars are back in action next Saturday where they play Cal State Dominguez Hills in Carson, Calif. The game tips off at 5:30 p.m.