SANTA CLARITA, Calif. -- The NAIA’s No. 7-ranked Azusa Pacific rode the inside play of senior forward Abby Johnson and sophomore center Kristie Hala’ufia, who combined for 40 points and 19 rebounds to lead the Cougars to an 82-78 victory over No. 11-ranked Trevecca Nazarene (Tenn.) Friday afternoon at the 8th Annual GSAC Challenge hosted by The Master’s. The victory was the Cougars’ sixth this season over an opponent ranked in the NAIA Division I Women’s Top 25.
Johnson finished with a game-high 21 points on 9-of-11 shooting from the field, and Hala’ufia added her second double-double of the season in a 19-point, 11-rebound effort. Johnson also grabbed 8 rebounds, dished out 5 assists and tied a career-high with 4 blocked shots.
Hala’ufia sank the front end of a 2-shot foul to give Azusa Pacific its largest lead of the game with just over 4 minutes to play, a 71-60 advantage that resulted from an 11-4 run. However, Trevecca Nazarene’s Abby Lawson rebounded the missed second attempt and converted a pair of free throws at the other end, and a mix-up on the ensuing inbounds gave the ball right back to the Trojans. K.C. Van Atta drilled 1 of her 5 3-pointers on the inbounds play, and she rebounded a Cougar miss and converted another pair of free throws to pull Trevecca Nazarene back to within 4 points at 71-67 with 3:50 to play, a 7-point run in less than 30 seconds.
The Cougars went back to their bread-and-butter, finding Hala’ufia deep in the post for another easy 2 for a 6-point cushion at 73-67 with just over 3 minutes left. Another Van Atta trey tied the game at 74-74 less than a minute later, capping another quick burst, a 7-1 run that took less than a minute off the clock. Freshman guard Michelle Byrd broke the tie with an aggressive drive to the hoop that gave Azusa Pacific a 76-74 lead with 1:43 left, and Van Atta missed both free throws after drawing a foul on the other end. Hala’ufia knocked down a mid-range jumper to give the Cougars a 78-74 advantage with 1:12 left, but after Kristin Archie scored her only points of the game to cut the lead to 78-76, Mariska Reed intercepted freshman guard C.J. Hill’s entry pass and converted it at the other end to tie the game at 78-78 with 42 seconds to play.
Senior guard Sarah Leathers sank 2 free throws with 39 seconds left, and a lob to a wide-open Jennifer Bognar in the paint went just beyond the Trevecca Nazarene post’s fingertips on the Trojans’ ensuing possession. Leathers knocked down another pair with 16 seconds left to provide the final 82-78 margin.
Trevecca Nazarene became just the second team to shoot 40 percent from the field against a Cougar defense, knocking down 26-of-64 from the field for a 41 percent clip. Five Trojans finished in double figures, led by 19 apiece from Van Atta and Bognar, who also grabbed a team-high 10 rebounds to collect the double-double. Reed finished with 12 points, Gibson tallied 11 and Lawson chipped in with 10 points off the bench.
Byrd joined Hala’ufia and Johnson in double figures with 11 points, and Leathers added 9 points and a game-high 7 assists. Junior forward Nikita Gordon came off the bench to score all 8 of her points on 4-of-6 shooting, all in a second half in which the Cougars shot at a 64 percent (18-for-28) clip from the field.
With the win, Azusa Pacific improves to 10-1 on the season, the best start in the past 30 years of Cougar women’s basketball history and second only to the 1976-77 squad that won its first 15 games before suffering a season-ending defeat for a 15-1 campaign. Trevecca Nazarene drops to 6-3 overall.
Both teams return to action tomorrow night to conclude the 8th Annual GSAC Challenge, hosted this year by The Master’s. At 6 p.m., the Cougars take on an 18-1 squad from University of British Columbia that posted a dominating 76-50 win over Biola in the Challenge’s opening game. Trevecca Nazarene takes on Challenge host The Master’s in the tournament finale at 8 p.m.