AZUSA, Calif. -- The NAIA’s No. 16-ranked Azusa Pacific features plenty of new faces, and it was one of those newcomers, freshman guard Michelle Byrd, who led the Cougars to a 69-63 Golden State Athletic Conference win over Westmont Tuesday night.
Byrd came 2 assists shy of a triple-double, finishing with a career- and team-high 14 points, along with her second 10-rebound effort of the year, and she also dished out a career- and game-high 8 assists. In 4 previous games, Byrd had reached double figures in scoring just once, when she scored 11 points in a non-conference win over Bethany.
“Only a few of us played together last year, so the more games we play, the more we come together as a team,” said Byrd. “We’re starting to get that sense of knowing where all the other players are going to be on the floor and when and where to pass it.”
Byrd capitalized on 1 of her 3 steals in the game, finishing the fast break with a layup that snapped a 33-33 halftime deadlock. The Cougars never trailed again, taking their largest lead of the game at 47-40 with 11:23 to play on a Byrd putback, 1 of her 5 offensive rebounds.
“The one thing I’ve been very pleased with is that we’re catching on to where we want to be defensively,” said Cougar head coach T.J. Hardeman. “We gave up a few too many offensive rebounds tonight, but we’re at least making a good defensive effort and we’re not an easy team to score on. That will carry us, and hopefully our offense will catch up later on.”
Westmont answered with 11 of the next 15 points, tying the game at 51-51 on a Stephanie Anderson trey with 6:14 to play, but sophomore center Kristie Hala’ufia’s work on the offensive glass resulted in a layup that gave Azusa Pacific the lead for good at 53-51 with 5:40 to play.
Freshman forward Bre Catron, Byrd and senior forward Abby Johnson each sank a pair of free throws in the final minute to preserve the win.
Senior guard Sarah Leathers’ second 3-pointer of the opening half gave Azusa Pacific a 22-18 lead with 6:41 remaining in the period, but Westmont scored 7 straight points to take a 25-22 lead just a minute and a half later. Neither team led by more than 2 points the rest of the half, and senior guard Kate Shipp’s layup with 12 seconds left sent the teams to halftime tied at 33-33.
“We did not execute very well at all against their defense, and we didn’t play with a whole lot of energy,” said Hardeman. “We had spurts of it, but we didn’t consistently execute the way we wanted to. That’s part of the learning curve. It’s still early, and there’s a lot of room for improvement in our execution, our understanding and our timing. Right now we’re getting better at running what we’re trying to run, but our timing isn’t quite there yet, and that’s what we need to have happen. It will come as we continue to work on it.”
Seven different Cougars scored at least 6 points, with Byrd, Johnson and Leathers each reaching double figures. Johnson scored 12 points, and Leathers finished with a trio of 3-pointers en route to an 11-point, 5-rebound effort. Azusa Pacific registered a season-high field goal percentage of .491 (26-for-53) and enjoying a 34-20 scoring advantage in the paint.
With the win, Azusa Pacific improves to 2-0 in GSAC play, 4-1 overall, while Westmont drops to 0-2 GSAC, 2-2 overall. The Cougars continue conference play in one week, visiting Concordia on Tuesday, Dec. 4, in a 6 p.m. contest in Irvine.