AZUSA, Calif. -- The road to the Golden State Athletic Conference women’s basketball program still runs through 5-time defending champion Vanguard, which broke a tie with the NAIA’s No. 6-ranked Azusa Pacific at the top of the conference standings with a 91-71 victory over the Cougars Saturday night. The Vanguard win was its 53rd straight GSAC win, setting a GSAC record for all sports for longest conference win streak.
Senior guard Sarah Leathers capped a 17-7 run with 1 of her 3 first-half 3-pointers to give Azusa Pacific a 24-18 lead midway through the period, and another bomb from long-range with 7:36 to go gave the Cougars their last lead of the game at 29-28. Lindsey Rinke scored back-to-back baskets to spark a 12-point Vanguard run over the next 3 minutes, giving the Lions a 40-29 advantage with 4:25 left en route to a 51-38 halftime lead.
“(Vanguard) shot the ball very well,” said Cougar head coach T.J. Hardeman. “We had a few defensive breakdowns, but for a lot of their shots, we had a hand up on them and they just hit them and shot it very well. When they’re shooting it well and you’re not, you usually lose.”
Less than 2 minutes into the second half, Leathers sank a pair of free throws to bring the Cougars to within 12 points at 55-43, but Vanguard scored 21 of the next 28 points to take a commanding 76-50 lead with 9:37 remaining in the game. Freshman guard C.J. Hill’s 3-point play with 3:40 to go capped a 15-4 run that brought the Cougars within 15 points at 80-65, but the Vanguard defense surrendered just 1 Azusa Pacific field goal the rest of the way to seal the victory.
Leathers scored a team-high 18 points to tie her season-high, and she finished with 4 treys. Sophomore center Kristie Hala’ufia added 15 points, and Hill came off the bench for 12 points. Senior forward Abby Johnson added 10 points and a team-high 7 rebounds for the Cougars, who were out-scored in the paint by a 42-24 margin.
“We shot a little too quickly a few times in the first half, after just 1 or 2 passes, and it turned the game into a track meet,” said Hardeman. “At the start, we didn’t want to get into a game like that, but that’s what it turned into, and they’re a better track team than we are and a better basketball team than we were tonight. If we had been a little smarter, we would have had a better chance. I thought we had done a good job of playing smart up to this point, and we just have to continue to do that at all times.”
The Lions out-rebounded the Cougars, 50-37, led by double-double efforts from Jessica Richter and Melissa Cook. Richter scored a game-high 22 points with 10 rebounds, and Cook grabbed 10 boards and added 20 points with 3 3-pointers. Lauren Gregory contributed a 16-point, 9-rebound effort off the bench.
“Win or lose, you’ve got to play each game,” said Hardeman, whose squad returns to action when it hosts No. 8-ranked The Master’s Tuesday night following tonight’s loss, Azusa Pacific’s first setback to an NAIA team this season. “Whether we won or lost this game, we still knew we had to come back Tuesday and be prepared to play another top team. The Master’s will do some of the same things that Vanguard did tonight, so we’ll just have to continue to work on the things we know we need to improve on.”
With the defeat, Azusa Pacific drops to 6-1 in GSAC play, 14-3 overall, while Vanguard takes sole possession of first place in the conference at 7-0, and the Lions improve to 11-2 overall. The victory also marked the 300th career win for Vanguard head coach Russ Davis.