AZUSA, Calif. -- The NAIA’s No. 7-ranked Azusa Pacific quickly shook off any ill effects that its longest layoff of the season may have brought, delivering a 68-57 win over No. 25-ranked University of the Cumberlands (Ky.) Tuesday night in Azusa, yet another impressive win for a Cougar squad that is off to one of the best starts in program history.
With wins in 8 of its first 9 games this season under first-year head coach T.J. Hardeman, Azusa Pacific is 8-1 to start the campaign for just the fourth time in the program’s 38-year history. Hardeman’s Cougars are also the only NAIA Div. I program with 5 wins over teams ranked in the latest NAIA Div. I Top 25 Coaches Poll.
“Cumberlands is the type of team you’ll see (at the NAIA Tournament) in Jackson,” said Hardeman. “They’re strong inside and they battled us.”
In Tuesday night’s win, 8 of the 9 Cougars who scored finished with at least 6 points, led by 10 points apiece from sophomore center Kristie Hala’ufia and freshman forward Bre Catron. Hala’ufia made 5-of-7 field goals off the bench to help lead the Cougar bench to a 27-1 scoring edge over the Patriots reserves, as well as a 36-20 advantage in the paint.
“Right now we have everybody scoring and contributing,” said Hardeman. “That enables us to practice hard and play hard, which is exactly what we’ll need to do when we get back into league play.”
After twice falling behind by 5 points in the first 4 minutes of the game, a Catron jumper sparked a 14-2 run that gave Azusa Pacific an 18-11 lead with 10:48 remaining in the opening half. Senior guard Sarah Leathers hit her second 3-pointer of the half with 17 seconds left to cap a 10-2 run that sent the Cougars into halftime with a 35-24 lead.
Cumberlands opened the second half with a Lissi Fuller 3-pointer, and the Patriots stayed within 10 points of the Cougars for the next 14 minutes. An Amber Neace trey and subsequent Crystal Taylor bucket cut the margin to 53-48 with 7:10 to play, but the Cougars reeled off a 13-2 run over the next 3-and-a-half minutest to take their largest lead of the game at 66-50 with 3:43 remaining. Azusa Pacific led by at least 11 points until the final buzzer sounded at the final 68-57 margin.
Cumberlands became the eighth Azusa Pacific foe to shoot less than 40 percent from the field, finishing 17-of-51 (33 percent) overall and knocking down just 6-of-26 (23 percent) from 3-point range. The Patriots were harassed into 23 turnovers, the eighth time the Cougars have forced 20 or more turnovers in a game.
“We knew we were going to be a little bit rusty, but defense is all about effort and communication,” said Hardeman. “Cumberlands is a good team, so for us to hold them to what we did was a good defensive effort.”
Senior forward Abby Johnson grabbed a game-high 11 rebounds to go with 7 points, including her third 3-pointer of the season. Freshmen guards Michelle Byrd and C.J. Hill each added 9 points, and Leathers added 8 points to go with her game-high 5 assists.
With the win, Azusa Pacific improves to 8-1 heading into tomorrow’s 5:30 p.m. non-conference matchup with Trinity Western (B.C.). Cumberlands drops to 7-4 on the campaign, with each of its past 2 losses coming against teams ranked in the NAIA’s top 10.