SANTA CLARITA, Calif. -- Junior forward Nikita Gordon blocked Alex Viewig’s potential game-winner, a 6-foot jumper from the right side, sealing a 61-59 come-from-behind victory for the NAIA’s No. 7-ranked Azusa Pacific over British Columbia Saturday evening at the 8th Annual GSAC Challenge hosted by The Master’s.
Gordon, limited to just 20 minutes and playing the closing seconds with 4 fouls, risked the potential disqualification by going for the block. It was a gamble that proved to be worth taking, as the short jumper she stuffed fell into the arms of freshman guard Michelle Byrd, who was fouled with less than a second remaining in the game and made 1-of-2 free throws to provide the final margin. Byrd’s slash to the hoop on the Cougars’ previous possession had set up Gordon’s go-ahead mid-range jumper that gave Azusa Pacific a 60-59 lead with 28 seconds to play.
Gordon, who picked up 3 fouls in the opening half, finished with just 6 points in 20 minutes but was a disruptive force defensively, adding a game-high 6 steals to her game-saving block. Byrd added 6 points and a game-high 10 rebounds. Sophomore center Kristie Hala’ufia finished with 13 points and 9 rebounds, and senior forward Abby Johnson was the Cougars’ scoring leader for the second straight night with a 14-point effort. Johnson struggled to find her shot, sinking just 4-of-17 from the field, but converted all 6 of her free throw attempts and added a game-high 3 blocked shots.
The Cougars faced a 5-point deficit after a British Columbia 9-0 run gave the Thunderbirds a 59-54 lead with 2:13 left in regulation. However, Byrd’s putback of a missed 3-pointer cut the lead to 59-56 with 1:54 to play, and Johnson cut the deficit to 59-58 on a pair of free throws with 1:05 remaining. Gordon knocked away an entry pass into the post on British Columbia’s ensuing possession to set up her game-winning jumper at the other end.
Senior guard Sarah Leathers added 10 points, including a 3-pointer on Azusa Pacific’s opening possession that gave the Cougars a lead it would not give up until less than 10 minutes remained in the game. The harassing Cougar defense forced 32 British Columbia turnovers, although the Thunderbirds posted a 48-32 rebounding edge over the Cougars.
British Columbia was led by Erica McGuiness, who scored a game-high 18 points, and Leanne Evans contributed 10 points and 10 rebounds for the Thunderbirds, who lost for just the second time in 20 games this season.
With the win, Azusa Pacific improves to 11-1 on the season, the best start in the last 30 years of Cougar women’s basketball history, while British Columbia drops to 18-2. The Cougars wrap up non-conference play when they host NCAA Div. II Ferris State (Mich.) Monday afternoon in a New Year’s Eve matinee at 2 p.m. in Azusa.
Hala’ufia and Leathers represented Azusa Pacific on the All-Challenge team, and McGuiness joined the Cougar pair with All-GSAC Challenge honors. The GSAC Challenge MVP was Annie Gillespie (The Master’s), and Erica Inge (The Master’s) and Jennifer Bognar (Trevecca Nazarene) rounded out the All-GSAC Challenge team.