JACKSON, Tenn. -- For the second straight year, Azusa Pacific suffered the same fate, a first-round exit from the NAIA Division I Women’s Basketball National Championship, this time falling 69-63 to Wiley (Texas), which was making its first-ever national tournament appearance.
Sophomore center Kristie Hala’ufia scored a game-high 16 points and junior forward Nikita Gordon added 13 points and 9 rebounds, and both had plentiful open chances in the paint when they got the ball in the post. The trouble was getting it to them. Wiley’s quick, trapping defense along the perimeter wreaked havoc on Azusa Pacific’s offense, forcing 26 Cougar turnovers and resulting in a 21-11 Wiley advantage in points off turnovers.
“Their speed gave us problems and caused turnovers, and that made us play in some instances a little quicker than we wanted to,” said Cougar head coach T.J. Hardeman. “They did a very good job taking us out of what we wanted to do. Kristie (Hala’ufia) did an awesome job inside for us, we just couldn’t quite get her the ball enough because they were trapping us outside.”
The Cougars led by as many as 7 points at 18-11 after freshman guard Jessica Raber’s long 2-point jumper from the left wing with 8:28 to play in the first half. Wiley answered with 7 straight points, including 5 off turnovers, over the next 2 minutes to pull even at 18-18. After regaining a 26-22 advantage with 3:31 left on senior forward Abby Johnson’s 15-foot jumper from the left elbow, the Cougars surrendered a 10-3 run over the rest of the half and trailed 32-29 at the break.
“In the beginning, when our shooters were on, we had a really positive energy,” said Hala’ufia. “Once our posts were scoring too, we felt like we were unstoppable. However, their speed was unbelievable, and even though we had prepared for it, there’s only so much you can do with a limited time to get ready.”
Wiley never led by more than 6 points until the final 3 minutes of the game, and the Cougars stayed within striking distance thanks to Hala’ufia’s 12 second-half points, 6 of which came in 8 attempts at the free throw line. Azusa Pacific pulled to within 3 points 9 times in the second half, closed to within a single point 2 more times and tied the game twice, but never actually took the lead in the final period.
Gordon’s jumper with 40 seconds left cut Wiley’s lead to 63-60, and the Cougar defense was forced to foul Linda Emeghebo as she drove to the hoop with 23 seconds to play. Emeghebo sank both free throws, and the Cougars turned the ball over twice more in the closing seconds, resulting in 4 more Wiley free throws for a 69-60 lead with 9 seconds left. Senior guard Sarah Leathers hit a 3-pointer with 2 seconds left in the game to trim the final margin to 69-63.
No Cougars besides Hala’ufia and Gordon registered double figures in scoring, although freshman guard Michelle Byrd, who spent significant minutes playing at the point while Leathers picked up 2 first-half fouls, tallied 9 points and 4 assists. Johnson and Leathers added 8 points apiece, and senior guard Kate Shipp drilled a pair of first-half 3-pointers for a final 6-point tally.
“Our journey has been awesome,” said Hardeman. “The seniors have set the bar as far as caring for each other off the court, playing hard on the court, encouraging each other, loving each other and putting God first. It’s been an incredible journey, even though a lot of the times the end of the journey isn’t that great.”
Emeghebo tied Hala’ufia’s game-high with 16 points, including an identical 6 from the free throw line, and she grabbed a team-high 9 rebounds. Ciara Sanders added 14 points despite shooting just 4-of-15 from the field, and Jaziman King and Nicole Posley scored 11 apiece for the Wildcats.
With the defeat, Azusa Pacific finishes at 24 wins for the fourth consecutive season with a final record of 24-8. Wiley, now 29-6 on the year, advances to a second-round matchup Friday evening with Freed-Hardeman (Tenn.).