AZUSA, Calif. -- History isn’t always made in a single night, or even a single season. Likewise, games aren’t always won with a single overpowering burst or an outstanding individual performance. The NAIA’s No. 9-ranked Azusa Pacific proved both of those points in Thursday night’s 79-55 win over San Diego Christian, a victory that gave the program its fifth straight 20-win season, the longest such streak in Cougar women’s basketball program history.
“There’s a lot of ways to get 20 wins – you can schedule 20 wins, but when you look at our schedule, a good portion of our 20 wins are against teams in the Top 25,” said Cougar head coach T.J. Hardeman. “We’ve played some good, solid teams, and I think that says a lot when you’ve been able to do that.”
While Azusa Pacific had fewer individuals reach double figures in scoring, was out-rebounded 39-34 and never scored more than 9 unanswered points, it was the Cougars’ superior depth, composure and defensive effort that eventually wore down the visiting Hawks. Senior guard Sarah Leathers scored 15 of her game-high 18 points in the second half after dishing out 5 of her game-high 7 assists prior to halftime to a Cougar offense whose 9-0 run late in the first half erased a 19-18 deficit and swung the game in Azusa Pacific’s favor for good.
“We came out with good intensity and focused on getting up defensively, and that gave us more energy,” said Leathers. “We did what we wanted to tonight – we didn’t turn the ball over as much, and as a team we really passed the ball around well.”
It was 1 of 10 different smaller runs of at least 4 points for Azusa Pacific, thanks in part to a defense that forced 22 San Diego Christian turnovers and held the Hawks to a 38 percent (21-for-56) shooting effort from the field. The Cougars went on 7-0 runs once in each half, had a 6-0 run in the second half, went on 2 more 5-0 runs in the second half and scored back-to-back baskets 4 more times. Seven of the 9 Cougars who played had at least 1 steal, and Azusa Pacific registered 20 assists to its 31 made field goals.
“They really played unselfish and looked out for each other, and I know it helps a team when the players aren’t selfish,” said Hardeman. “(Freshman guard) Michelle Byrd did a great job defensively, and everybody did a great job tonight. We’re a hard team to pick out a single player you’re going to try to stop.”
Leathers knocked down 4 from long range, including 3-of-5 3-point attempts in the second half.
“I’ve been stressing about (my shooting) for the last couple of days, so it’s nice for them to drop because now I don’t have to go into practice or the next game trying to find that shot,” said Leathers. “It wasn’t necessarily needed to get the win tonight, but it definitely helped me for the next game to be confident. I’ve probably been thinking about it too much. My teammates continue to look for me, and our inside-out game was a big difference. It’s easier as a shooter when the ball comes from a post to a guard than it is off the dribble or from a wing on the outside.”
She was joined in double figures by senior forward Abby Johnson, who tallied 17 points, and sophomore center Kristie Hala’ufia who added 13 points off the bench. Junior forward Nikita Gordon grabbed a game-high 10 rebounds, and Byrd had a solid all-around game with 6 points, 8 rebounds, 6 assists and a game-high 3 steals.
“My teammates did a good job getting the ball inside, and we shared the ball well as a team tonight,” said Johnson. “I worked hard to get position inside and I got some easy shots because my teammates found me in good spots. Our guards are getting it inside, and we have good post players. When we’re able to trust each other, we’re able to execute and play our game the way we want to.”
San Diego Christian had 4 players in double figures, led by Dorchella James’ team-highs of 16 points, 5 assists and 4 steals. James made 2-of-3 treys, but the rest of the Hawks managed to hit just 2-of-16 from 3-point range. Tynisha Utz added 14 points, and Courtney Ash and Vernessa Roberts tossed in 11 points apiece.
With the win, Azusa Pacific improves to 20-5 overall and remains in sole possession of third place in the GSAC with a 12-3 conference record. Point Loma Nazarene and Vanguard are tied for first at 13-1, and they both host the teams currently tied for fourth at 9-5, The Master’s and Westmont, Saturday night.
“There’s 5 games left, and we’re 2 games behind, so we don’t have our future in our hands,” said Hardeman. “All we can do is do our best, and let the chips fall where they may. In this league you have teams that are capable of beating other teams, but you just have to focus on controlling what you can control.”
San Diego Christian drops to 9-15 overall, 3-11 GSAC, leaving the Hawks in a 3-way tie for eighth as they pursue their first-ever berth in the 8-team conference postseason tournament field.
The Cougars remain at home after the long weekend off, hosting Fresno Pacific on Tuesday, Feb. 19 at 5:30 p.m. before visiting 5-time defending GSAC champion Vanguard on Saturday, Feb. 23.