GLENDORA, Calif. -- The NAIA’s No. 9-ranked Azusa Pacific rallied to within 2 points after trailing by 19 early in the second half before running out of gas in a 73-62 loss to California Baptist in the first round of the GSAC Postseason Tournament Wednesday night at Citrus College.
Azusa Pacific has clinched an at-large berth to the NAIA Women’s Basketball National Championship by virtue of its No. 9 national ranking in the final national coaches poll released earlier today. California Baptist advances to a GSAC Tournament semifinals matchup at the NAIA’s No. 4-ranked Vanguard on Friday, March 7.
Senior guard Sarah Leathers needed just 5 assists in what was her program-record 132nd career game to become Azusa Pacific’s career assists leader, as well, and she came out dealing. She got the 5 she needed in the opening half, with the record-breaker setting up junior forward Nikita Gordon’s 15-footer from the right wing.that brought the Cougars to within 41-33 with 2:19 to play in the half.
Leathers finished with a season-high 12 assists, just 3 shy of the program’s single-game record. Her new career total of 561 assists catapulted her past Kelly Speas’ 9-year old mark of 553, set in Speas’ 4-year career that spanned from 1996-99.
California Baptist nearly ran itself out of the gym with the furious pace it set in the opening half as it raced to a 49-33 halftime lead. The Lancers made 7 3-pointers before the break and finished the opening half with an 8-0 run. However, after Brenna Hahn’s trey on California Baptist’s opening possession opened the lead to 52-33, its largest of the game, Azusa Pacific turned up the defensive pressure several notches.
The Cougars did not surrender a field goal over the next 11 minutes of the game, using an 18-1 run to close to within 2 points at 53-51 on senior forward Abby Johnson’s layup off another Leathers assist. On the ensuing possession, Nicole Wilhite’s turnaround jumper in the key rattled around and in to slow the Cougars’ momentum, and the friendly bounce rejuvenated what appeared to be an exhausted Lancer squad. California Baptist built a 15-4 run out of Wilhite’s bucket, taking a 72-55 lead with 2:01 to play, then survived 3 turnovers and a pair of Cougar treys in the next minute before hanging on for the final 73-62 margin.
Sophomore center Kristie Hala’ufia pulled half of her team-high 10 rebounds on the offensive glass, and she added a team-high 17 points on a variety of easy looks around the basket against the undersized Lancers. Gordon added 11 points, including her first 3-pointer of the season, to go with 7 rebounds, while Johnson tallied 10 points and 9 rebounds.
Five different Lancers registered double figures, led by Jeanine Deno, who scored all of her team-high 16 points in the first half. Wilhite finished with 13 points, and Bryana Williams and Hahn added 12 apiece. Romeka Randolph added 11 points and a game-high 3 steals off the Lancers bench.
With the defeat, Azusa Pacific will head into national tournament play with a 24-7 overall record. The national tournament bracket will be released following the conclusion of all of the NAIA’s conference tournaments next week. California Baptist improves to 17-11 overall, and the Lancers must at least advance to the conference tournament title game to have a shot at making it into the 32-team field through the conference’s automatic berth awarded to either the GSAC Tournament champion or the tournament runner-up if regular-season champion Point Loma Nazarene also advances to the title game.