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Cougars Can’t Top Vanguard

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February 23, 2008
Joe Reinsch
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COSTA MESA, Calif. -- The NAIA’s No. 9-ranked Azusa Pacific missed a golden opportunity to re-assert itself into the thick of the chase for the Golden State Athletic Conference women’s basketball title, suffering a 65-51 defeat to No. 4-ranked Vanguard Saturday night.

If there were ever a night to beat the 5-time defending GSAC champions on their home floor, a place where Vanguard had not lost a regular-season conference game in over 3 years, this was it. The Lions’ 19-for-66 (29 percent) shooting effort was its worst since a 69-59 national semifinal loss to Lubbock Christian in 2006, and it was their worst home performance in over 5 years, when it shot a dismal 18 percent (9-for-50) in a 56-38 loss to Westmont in 2003.

However, Azusa Pacific faced struggles of its own that kept the Cougars from pulling off the upset. It wasn’t a shooter’s night, as Azusa Pacific shot just 38 percent (22-for-58) itself, but the Cougars shot themselves in the foot with 23 fouls and 23 turnovers, more than double Vanguard’s total of 11 in each category. The Lions shot 28 free throws to Azusa Pacific’s 7, and the difference in points at the free throw line (21-6) provided the exact difference between a Cougar win and the final 14-point margin of defeat.

Senior forward Abby Johnson scored 11 of her 13 points in the second half, and she grabbed a game-high 13 rebounds for her 11th double-double of the season. Sophomore center Kristie Hala’ufia also finished with 13 points, but she was limited by foul trouble to just 16 minutes of action off the bench.

After a shaky start put the Cougars in a 5-0 hole 3 minutes into the game, Hala’ufia scored 9 straight Azusa Pacific points to key an 11-2 run that gave the Cougars an 11-7 lead with 11 minutes remaining in the opening half. However, the next 4 possessions all resulted in turnovers, allowing Vanguard to tie the game at 11-11. The Lions used a 9-2 run over the final 3 minutes of the period to take a 26-21 halftime lead.

Vanguard, which made just 1-of-18 3-point attempts in the first half, opened the second half with a Jessica Richter trey, although Johnson’s 3-point play was followed by a Hala’ufia bucket that cut the deficit to 29-26 with 17:29 remaining in the game. The 3-point margin was as close as Azusa Pacific would get the rest of the way, with another Richter 3-pointer sparking a 7-point run that included a pair of Vanguard free throws courtesy of a Hala’ufia technical foul.

Freshman guard Michelle Byrd scored on back-to-back possessions with short jumpers in the paint, cutting the lead to 40-32 with just over 11 minutes to play, but Melissa Cook and Richter drilled back-to-back treys that pushed the lead into double digits for good.

Byrd, who committed 3 fouls in the first half, played all 20 minutes of the second half and finished with 8 points, and senior guard Sarah Leathers played all 40 minutes and dished out a game-high 8 assists. Junior forward Nikita Gordon chipped in with 8 points and 8 rebounds.

Richter tallied game-highs of 16 points and 6 steals to go with a team-high 11 rebounds, and Cook added 14 points for the Lions. Lauren Gregory added 13 points, 7 rebounds and 5 steals.

With the loss, Azusa Pacific drops to 21-6 overall, 13-4 in GSAC play, and the Cougars are eliminated from the GSAC title race with 3 games to play. Vanguard improves to 20-3 overall, 16-1 GSAC heading into Tuesday’s battle of GSAC leaders with Point Loma Nazarene, which snapped the Lions’ GSAC-record 53-game conference winning streak. The GSAC’s conference win streak record was surpassed last night by Azusa Pacific’s men’s tennis team, whose 9-0 win over Biola was the Cougars’ 54th consecutive GSAC win.

Azusa Pacific’s women’s basketball team visits No. 15-ranked The Master’s on Tuesday, Feb. 26, at 5:30 p.m.