AZUSA, Calif. -- Sophomore guard Michelle Byrd came within 1 steal of the Azusa Pacific single-game record, posting a rare points and steals double-double with 10 points and 10 steals to lead the NAIA’s No. 5-ranked Cougars to a 71-62 win over Cal State Dominguez Hills Saturday afternoon.
Byrd finished with 6 of her 10 steals in the first half, and were it not for foul trouble that limited her to 26 minutes of action, may have tied or broken the program’s single-game record of 11, set in 1999 by Amy Lemm.
“Our focus this week was defense,” Byrd said. “I wasn’t worried about anything else except knowing where the ball was at all times. We had to come out and not let our pressure down.”
Frustrated with his team’s defensive performance this season, Cougar head coach T.J. Hardeman spent nearly the entire week focusing on defense, and the results showed early. Azusa Pacific allowed just 2 shots in Cal State Dominguez Hills’ first 9 possessions, with Byrd snagging 4 of the Cougars’ 7 steals in the game’s first 3 and a half minutes.
The defensive pressure helped Azusa Pacific race out to a 16-2 lead, and Byrd’s putback off a 3-point miss gave the Cougars their largest lead of the game at 28-9 with 9:45 remaining in the first half. However, the Toros trimmed the halftime lead to 5 points at 38-33, as Neka Mixon scored 11 of her team-high 15 points in the first half.
“We felt that this year we haven’t been focusing enough defensively,” Hardeman said. “We’ve had the whole week, where all we’ve done is work on defense – sliding up and taking charges, and doing those kinds of things that we thought we needed to do to be the best team we can be. That was very exciting to do such a great job of it, but I don’t think we were used to it. After 10 minutes, we were exhausted.”
Cal State Dominguez Hills scored 11 straight points to open the second half, as well, taking a 44-38 lead with 15:23 to play. Mixon gave the Toros a 46-41 lead with 14:20 remaining, but she would not score again.
“We played really hard defensively the first 10 minutes and got a little tired towards the end of the first half,” Byrd said. “We let them back into it, but we picked it up again in the second half.“
Azusa Pacific scored 8 straight points to take the lead for good, kicking off a 24-5 run that spanned nearly 10 minutes to give the Cougars a 65-51 advantage with less than 5 minutes to play. Freshman guard Briana Hall drilled 2 of 5 Azusa Pacific treys in the run, including the bomb from the left wing that swung the lead back into the Cougars’ favor at 47-46 with 12:35 left in the game. Sophomore forward Alex Moore-Porter also hit a pair of 3-pointers in the run, finishing with a game-high 16 points along with a team-high 9 rebounds.
“We finally hit a few outside shots,” Hardeman said. “We know we’re a strong inside team, and they were trying to make sure couldn’t score there so the outside was open for us. Our scoring was very balanced, and some people picked it up.”
All 5 Cougar starters reached double figures, with Hall tallying 14 points, sophomore center Kristie Hala’ufia adding 13, and sophomore guard C.J. Hill knocking down a pair of 3-pointers in an 11-point effort while dishing out a game-high 6 assists.
Cal State Dominguez Hills dominated the boards, pulling down 19 of its 42 rebounds from the offensive glass and out-rebounding the Cougars by a 42-28 margin. Ennisha Kyles led the Toros with 11 points and a game-high 10 rebounds for the double-double.
With the win, Azusa Pacific improves to 8-2 overall heading into an 8-day break from game action for the Christmas holiday, while Cal State Dominguez Hills drops to 4-3 as the Toros wraps up their pre-Christmas schedule. The Cougars host Southern Oregon and Ursuline (Ohio) Dec. 28-29, part of Azusa Pacific’s Cougar Classic featuring 2 women’s and 2 men’s basketball contests each day.