AZUSA, Calif. -- Azusa Pacific took care of the basketball like a prized possession, and the result was an even more valuable commodity – another Golden State Athletic Conference women’s basketball victory, as the NAIA’s No. 9-ranked Cougars tied a season-high margin of victory with Tuesday’s 86-54 win over Fresno Pacific.
The Cougars turned the ball over a season-low 7 times, and on a night when 3 of the other NAIA Top 25-ranked GSAC women’s basketball teams struggled to put away unranked opponents, Azusa Pacific’s 32-point win over Fresno Pacific helped give the Cougars some much-needed momentum heading into Saturday’s showdown at No. 4-ranked Vanguard.
“We’ve watched (our first Vanguard) game a couple of times, and we didn’t play smart,” said Cougar head coach T.J. Hardeman. “Hopefully, we’ll do a better job of going to our strengths and realizing what they’re giving us. Defensively, they’re a hard match for us. They’ll really challenge us to play team defense and play smart. It will be a fun game because it’s a national tournament-caliber game. I’m excited for us to play a team that we’re excited to play, and it will be nice to play in a game where we’re the underdog.”
Junior forward Nikita Gordon posted season-highs of 17 points and 12 rebounds, her first double-double of the season, and senior forward Abby Johnson poured in a game-high 20 points for Azusa Pacific, which led by double-digits for all but 1 minute of the second half after taking a 39-30 advantage into halftime.
“Even though it’s later in the season, it’s never too late,” said Gordon, who is averaging 11 points and 7 rebounds over the past 6 games. “I’m just trying to help my team any way I can by getting mentally and physically prepared. Every game is a big game for us, and we’re just trying to get prepared (to play our best) at the end of the season. We’ve got Vanguard on Saturday, so it’s time to really start buckling down.”
Midway through the second half, senior guard Sarah Leathers drained a 3-pointer from the right wing to spark a 21-3 run that blew the game open for good. Six different Cougars scored in the run, turning a 61-49 lead into an 82-52 margin in a 5-and-a-half minute span.
“At halftime, we talked about playing the game with a little more passion,” said Hardeman. “We only had 2 turnovers in the first half, but it didn’t look like we were excited to play. I didn’t understand that, so we really challenged the seniors to lead us, show excitement and excite the rest of the team. They did a much better job of understanding what we wanted to do after that.”
Freshman guard Michelle Byrd scored all 11 of her points in the opening half, including a layup and subsequent 3-point play midway through the period. Her baskets sparked a 14-4 run that erased a 1-point deficit and gave Azusa Pacific the lead for good at 26-17 with 7:08 to play.
Eight of Gordon’s 12 boards came on the offensive glass, and she led the Cougars to a 42-32 rebounding edge for the game. Freshman guard C.J. Hill scored 14 points and dished out a game-high 6 assists, and Leathers added 8 points, 5 assists and a game-high 4 steals. Freshman guard Jessica Raber added 8 points off the bench, the sixth Cougar with at least 8 points.
The Sunbirds shot 7-for-27 (26 percent) from the field in the second half and committed 13 of their 19 turnovers after halftime. Senior forward Kari Cox, Fresno Pacific’s scoring leader entering the game, finished with a team-high 15 points, and the only other Sunbird in double figures was freshman forward Jessica Torrecillas, who pitched in with 10 points off the bench.
“We don’t just prepare for certain games,” said Gordon. “We prepare for every game. Our coaches work hard to teach us that, and we don’t take any team lightly. Whether we’re up by 1 or by 20, we’re going to keep playing hard.”
With the win, Azusa Pacific improves to 21-5 overall, 13-3 in GSAC play, while Fresno Pacific’s loss eliminates the Sunbirds from any postseason contention, as they dropped to 8-19 overall, 1-16 GSAC, 3.5 games behind the eighth-place tie between Biola and Concordia, who play each other head-to-head this weekend for the inside track to entry into the 8-team GSAC Postseason Tournament.
The Cougars visit 5-time defending GSAC champion Vanguard on Saturday, Feb. 23, at 5:30 p.m., a rematch of the Lions’ 91-71 win over the Cougars in mid-January that gave Vanguard 53 straight GSAC victories, what was then a GSAC all-sports record for longest conference winning streak. That run ended when Point Loma Nazarene beat Vanguard in the very next game, and that record was tied last Saturday by Azusa Pacific’s men’s tennis program, which will go for its 54th consecutive GSAC win Friday at Biola.