AZUSA, Calif. -- The 3-point shooting of senior guard Sarah Leathers keyed a 22-1 first-half run, and the NAIA’s No. 9-ranked Azusa Pacific had to hang on for dear life for a 59-56 road win over Biola in the Golden State Athletic Conference regular-season finale.
Leathers hit 3 treys in the run, with the first giving the Cougars their first lead of the game at 25-24 after falling behind 10-0 to start the game. Azusa Pacific scored 16 straight points in just over 3 minutes at the front end of the run, and when all was said and done, a 24-15 Biola lead with 7:35 to play in the half had been converted into a 37-25 Cougar advantage with 2:20 left.
“We didn’t execute very well at the beginning of the game, but our players understand not to panic, and they eventually settled into the game,” said Cougar head coach T.J. Hardeman. “I didn’t feel like we got rattled, we just didn’t shoot the ball well from outside. Sarah’s the all-time leading 3-point shooter at Azusa Pacific, and she was passing up open shots, so I asked her very nicely to stop passing up those looks.”
Azusa Pacific missed its first 6 shots, turned the ball over 3 times and committed 3 fouls in the first 4-and-a-half minutes of the game, spotting the Eagles an early 10-point lead before senior forward Abby Johnson snapped the drought with a conventional 3-point play. Freshman guard Michelle Byrd scored the next 2 Cougar baskets, then made the layup that sparked the 16-point spurt that served as the beginning of the 22-1 outburst.
“We were rushing (at the beginning), just looking to shoot right away without really working our offense,” said Leathers. “Once we settled in and went inside, we picked it up and started scoring a little more.”
Sophomore center Kristie Hala’ufia’s late first-half jumper sent Azusa Pacific into halftime with a 41-31 lead, and the Cougars led by at least 9 points for nearly the entire second half. Another Hala’ufia jumper and conventional 3-point play on the next Cougar possession pushed the lead to 56-44 with just under 8 minutes left in the game, but Azusa Pacific would go cold again over the final 7:50. The Cougars missed 9 of 10 shots, plus the front end of a 1-and-1 bonus that could have sealed the victory in the closing seconds. Instead, Biola had possession with a chance to tie before turning the ball over as time expired.
“I think both teams would have liked to go back and do some things better than we did tonight,” said Hardeman. “but when there’s that much excitement and energy from the large crowd, it makes it difficult to execute. You’d like to finish the year off well, but against an arch-rival, you just want to win. I’d rather have an ugly win than a pretty loss, any day of the week.”
Junior forward Nikita Gordon, whose conventional 3-point play with 2:42 remaining in the game gave Azusa Pacific a 10-point cushion at 59-49 before Biola’s final 7-point run through the remainder of regulation, finished with a team-high 15 points to go with 8 rebounds. Leathers added 12 points on a game-high 4 3-pointers, the last of which gave the Cougars their largest lead of the game at 46-31 with 16:51 left in the game.
Byrd finished with 11 points, and Hala’ufia collected 9 points and a team-high 11 rebounds. Sophomore center Kristel Eddington scored 7 points in 8 minutes of first-half action in place of Johnson, who picked up 2 quick fouls less than 7 minutes into the game.
Biola was paced by Alberts’ game-highs of 18 points and 14 rebounds, but no other players reached double figures on the night for the Eagles, who shot just 29 percent (17-for-59) from the field.
With the win, Azusa Pacific improves to 24-6 overall and posts its best conference record since 2002 at 16-4. The Cougars will be the No. 3 seed in the upcoming GSAC Postseason Tournament, hosting California Baptist in a game that will be played at Citrus College in Glendora on Wednesday, March 5, at 7:30 p.m. Biola drops to 9-21 overall, 6-14 GSAC, but the Eagles will participate in the postseason for the first time since 2004, when they advanced to the conference title game. Biola enters the conference tournament as the No. 8 seed with an opening-round visit to the GSAC’s regular-season champion Point Loma Nazarene.