AZUSA, Calif. -- The long, hard road back to the top of the Golden State Athletic Conference standings just got a lot shorter for the NAIA’s No. 6-ranked Azusa Pacific, after senior guard Sarah Leathers poured in a career-high 30 points to lead the Cougars to a 78-69 win over No. 8-ranked The Master’s Tuesday night.
The Cougars got a little help from No. 7-ranked Point Loma Nazarene’s 86-65 win over 5-time defending GSAC champion Vanguard this evening, a result that snapped a GSAC-record 53-game conference win streak for the No. 3-ranked Lions. Azusa Pacific now sits in a 3-way tie atop the conference standings just 3 days after a humbling 20-point home defeat to Vanguard.
Senior forward Abby Johnson and sophomore center Kristie Hala’ufia, who combined for just 6 points in the opening half, combined for the first 3 buckets of the second half, cutting a 40-32 halftime deficit to 40-38 with 17:18 to play.
“At halftime, we talked about how we were giving up too many easy shots and easy looks,” said Cougar head coach T.J. Hardeman. “(The first half) was not (typical of) what we always talk about wanting to do, so I challenged them, and they came out and matched their coach’s intensity in the second half. That changed the game, once we started playing better defense.”
From there, Leathers took over, making 4 consecutive 3-point attempts during a 14-6 run that gave Azusa Pacific a 52-48 lead with 12:39 left, and the Cougars never trailed again.
“A lot of times when I’m not shooting well, I’ll want to hesitate, but Coach and my teammates don’t let me relax at all,” said Leathers. “They’ll get on me and encourage me to shoot, and when they have some confidence in me, it helps me build my confidence.”
“One time I caught it (in the first half) in the corner and my feet weren’t even set. I just shot it and it went in. It was coming off my hand really nice, and I knew it was going to be a good night.”
Erica Inge tied the game at 61-61 on a pair of free throws with 7:25 remaining in the game, but Leathers knocked down 3-of-4 free throws to spark an 11-2 run over the next 3 minutes that gave Azusa Pacific a 72-63 advantage with just 4 minutes remaining. The Cougars, who failed to visit the free throw line in the first 30 minutes of the game, made 10 straight from the charity stripe to seal the victory.
Fittingly, it was Leathers who knocked down 2 more with 9 seconds left to provide the final margin and crack the 30-point barrier for the first time in her career. Leathers also tied a career single-game high with 7 3-pointers and dished out a game-high 7 assists. Johnson tallied her seventh double-double of the season, scoring 14 points to go with a game-high 13 rebounds. Senior guard Kate Shipp knocked down a key 3-pointer in the final minute of the opening half after The Master’s had taken a 10-point lead, and she finished with 11 points.
“We looked like we were in a daze in the first half,” said Hardeman. “We just had to go back to playing better defense. We really put our stock in defense – defense is never going to miss a shot.”
The Master’s, limited to 8-for-29 shooting from the field in the second half by a stingy Cougar defense, was led by Stacy Nanninga’s 14-point effort. Annie Gillespie added 12 points, and Lisa Chenoweth was the only other Mustang in double figures, registering 10 points.
With the win, Azusa Pacific improves to 15-3 on the season, 7-1 GSAC. The Master’s suffers back-to-back defeats for the first time this season and drops to 12-5 overall, 4-4 GSAC. The Cougars, now 7-1 against teams ranked in the NAIA Top 25, visit another ranked opponent Saturday when they take on No. 19-ranked California Baptist in a 5:30 p.m. contest in Riverside.