JACKSON, Tenn. -- Azusa Pacific signed up to play 3 NAIA Top 10 programs in their own backyard, and the NAIA’s No. 6-ranked Cougars held their own, dealing a 77-61 defeat to No. 9-ranked Lambuth (Tenn.) Thursday night at the Jackson Rotary Classic.
Junior center Kristie Hala’ufia scored 20 of her 26 points after halftime to lead Azusa Pacific back from a 41-35 halftime deficit, matching Lambuth’s entire scoring production after halftime in the Cougars’ runaway victory. Hala’ufia scored 10 straight Azusa Pacific points in the midst of a 14-2 run shortly after halftime as the Cougars turned a 6-point deficit into a 51-45 lead midway through the second half.
“(Early in the game), they did a lot of pressuring our guards out front, and we had too many hurried opportunities to Kristie,” Cougar head coach T.J. Hardeman said. We turned the ball over a number of times trying to get it to her. We were playing too fast. They were a fast team, a smart team, and we got caught up trying to play up to their speed a little bit. We were playing their pace, and in the second half, we decided to play a little bit more at our pace and make sure we took our time and tighten up defensively a little bit.”
Hala’ufia answered each of Lambuth’s next 4 baskets, the last one sparking a 19-7 run for a 15-point advantage with 2 minutes left after the Eagles had cut the lead to 53-50 with just under 9 minutes remaining in the game. She was 11-of-14 from the field, and sophomore forward Alex Moore-Porter added 14 points and 9 rebounds for the Cougars, who shot 51 percent (26-for-51) from the field and out-rebounded Lambuth by a 41-32 margin.
“Focusing offensively on what we wanted to do and defensively playing as a team were both big keys for us,” Hardeman said. “We executed some things tonight that were better than we’d done all year. We were perfect in a number of things we did offensively as far as execution. It was a nice game for us, defensively and then offensively in the second half.”
Sophomore guard Michelle Byrd scored 10 of her 12 points in the first half, and she grabbed 8 rebounds, dished out a game-high 6 assists and was credited with the game’s only blocked shot.
Lambuth used a 13-2 run late in the first half to take its largest lead of the game at 41-33 before Hala’ufia trimmed the halftime deficit to 6 points at 41-35.
With the win, Azusa Pacific improves to 3-0 on the season, while the loss is Lambuth’s first on the season and drops the Eagles to 3-1. The Cougars continue Rotary Classic action Friday at 9 p.m. Central, taking on No. 3-ranked Freed-Hardeman (Tenn.), victim of a 55-54 upset to No. 13 Saint Xavier (Ill.) earlier Thursday.