AZUSA, Calif. -- Less than a week after its 8-game winning streak was snapped, the NAIA’s No. 7-ranked Azusa Pacific returned to the win column with a 93-61 victory over Hope International Saturday evening.
All 5 Cougar starters scored in double figures, with senior guard Sarah Leathers, the program’s career 3-point record holder, knocking down 5 from long distance en route to a team-high 18 points. Sophomore center Kristie Hala’ufia shared the team scoring lead with 18 points, while senior forward Abby Johnson posted her second straight double-double with a 15-point, 10-rebound effort.
“The preseason has been fun, and we had 3 league games mixed in there, but this is what you shoot for,” said Cougar head coach T.J. Hardeman, who spent the previous 2 seasons patrolling Hope International’s sideline before joining Azusa Pacific last summer. “We wanted to get out strong right at the beginning, and we did a good job finding people in their spots. We really made each other look good out there.”
Hope International scored the game’s first basket, a layup by Golden State Athletic Conference scoring leader Jasmine Nault, but the Cougars responded with a 20-2 run over the next 8 minutes, limiting the Royals to a pair of Nault free throws during the run. The Cougar defense built up a 23-point halftime advantage, its largest lead of the game to that point, behind a defense that held Hope International to just 20 percent (6-of-30) shooting from the field in the opening frame. Leathers capped 20 outstanding minutes of basketball with her second 3-pointer of the game, knocking down the trey with 10 seconds to send the Cougars into halftime with a 43-20 lead.
“I got to play a lot at the 2 tonight, which made it a little easier for me to slip into the seams,” said Leathers. “Our team does a good job penetrating and looking for the open shooter. Coach really has us focused in on defense, so the offense just comes to us naturally. We look for each other out there, and we understand each other’s strengths really well.”
Azusa Pacific led by at least 20 points the entire second half, pushing the margin over 30 points for the first time in the game during a 14-0 run that featured back-to-back 3-pointers from senior guard Kate Shipp and gave the Cougars their largest lead of the game at 86-47 with 4:23 remaining in the game.
Its 93-point effort was a season-high for Azusa Pacific, which entered the game averaging 68 points per game. The Cougars knocked down a season-high 11 3-pointers and shot 53 percent (35-for-66) from the field.
Shipp finished with 15 points, drilling a career-high 4 3-pointers, and freshman guard Michelle Byrd tallied 11 points and a season-high 8 assists for the Cougars.
Nault finished with her 15th 20-point performance in 16 games this season, tallying an even 20 points while grabbing 7 of Hope International’s 13 steals in the game. Brittani Philbrook added 17 points and a team-high 10 rebounds.
With the win, Azusa Pacific improves remains perfect in 4 games of GSAC play, improving 12-2 overall, while Hope International drops to 2-2 GSAC, 11-5 overall. The Cougars, whose final 16 games are all conference contests, resume play when they visit San Diego Christian on Thursday, Jan. 10, at 5:30 p.m.