IRVINE, Calif. -- The NAIA’s No. 5-ranked Azusa Pacific finished off a 75-72 road win over Concordia with a 12-2 run, grabbing 3 offensive rebounds in the final 90 seconds to help seal the victory and hand the Eagles their first setback in Golden State Athletic Conference play.
Sophomore guard Michelle Byrd pulled down the last 2 of 3 straight offensive rebounds off back-to-back 3-point misses in the final 90 seconds after junior center Kristie Hala’ufia provided the game-winner in the paint with 1:49 to play. Sophomore guard C.J. Hill made 1-of-2 free throws with 22 seconds left, forcing Concordia into 3-point desperation mode. Kayanna Nichols, who made 3 treys in the game, had her final attempt from long range tipped by Hala’ufia as time expired.
“We knew we had to box out in order to get the rebounds,” Byrd said. “We just did what we had to do, and we got (the rebounds) in the end. Every team (in the GSAC) is capable of beating us, and we’re capable of beating every team, so we have to come out and play hard every night.”
Concordia took care of the ball against an aggressive Azusa Pacific defense which entered the game forcing 22 turnovers per game. The Eagles gave the ball up just 2 times in the first half and finished with 12 turnovers, a season-low for an Azusa Pacific opponent. In addition, Concordia attacked the paint to get Azusa Pacific’s leading scorer Hala’ufia in early foul trouble, and she tallied 6 points and 4 rebounds in just 9 minutes of first-half action.
“Defensively, we weren’t doing anything to make them turn the ball over,” Cougar head coach T.J. Hardeman said. “Everything was easy for them. We changed that a little bit for the second half, but I thought a turning point for us was our ability to put more pressure on the ball in the second half.”
Sophomore forward Alex Moore-Porter helped pick up the first-half scoring load, scoring 14 of her game-high 22 points in the opening half to send the game into halftime tied at 40-40. Hill was the Cougars’ second-half hero, scoring 13 of her 17 after halftime, including a 3-point play that sparked the game-ending 12-2 run after Concordia had taken its largest lead of the game at 70-63 on a Nichols trey with 4:19 remaining.
“I didn’t feel like we played with much of a sense of urgency until the very end when we looked up and found ourselves down by 7 points,” Hardeman said. “We just struggled to get on track, and Alex and C.J. came up huge for us. Even though we have Kristie and try to look for her, there’s still the idea that everybody else on our team is talented and can score. We should be looking for that, and we’re doing a better job of it.”
A pair of Moore-Porter free throws tied the game at 70-70, and Hill’s layup capped a 67-second stretch in which the Cougars scored 9 straight to take a brief 72-70 lead. Nicole Fu’s jumper answered the run and tied the game at 72-72 with 2:07 to play, but Byrd found Hala’ufia underneath on Azusa Pacific’s ensuing possession for what turned out to be the game-winner.
Moore-Porter tallied her third double-double, tying her scoring season-high 22 while grabbing a game-high 14 rebounds. Byrd added 10 points and 9 rebounds, and freshman center Amber Williams came off the bench and pulled down a season-high 8 rebounds to help Azusa Pacific claim a 44-35 edge on the boards. Hill dished out a game-high 7 assists, and Byrd registered 5 assists and 3 steals, her fifth time in the last 6 games with at least 3 steals.
“Concordia came in with a 9-1 record and they were on their home floor, so we expected a tough game,” Hardeman said. “I felt like we played just well enough to win. Even when we were down, I still felt like we would be okay if we just executed and got a couple of defensive stops. We finally did that, and the outcome turned out nicely for us.”
With the win, Azusa Pacific moves into a tie for second in the GSAC at 2-1, improving to 11-2 overall, while Concordia drops to 2-1 GSAC, 9-2 overall. The Cougars are back in action on Tuesday, Jan. 6, when they visit Biola in a 5:30 p.m. contest.