SANTA BARBARA, Calif. -- The NAIA’s No. 15-ranked Westmont executed after No. 20 Azusa Pacific couldn’t, and the Cougars gave up an 8-2 run in the final 1:10 to suffer a 72-67 defeat to Westmont Tuesday night.
Sophomore forward Alex Moore-Porter scored in the paint with 1:53 left to give Azusa Pacific a 65-64 lead, and Amber Stevens missed the back end of a pair of free throws with 1:32 left, giving the Cougars the ball with the score tied, 65-65. A Cougar turnover on a pass out of bounds gave the ball right back to Westmont, which took the lead for good on Jessica Case’s 3-pointer with 1:10 remaining. The Cougars missed on the ensuing possession, and Westmont sealed the win when Amber Stevens and Case each made a pair of free throws in the final 25 seconds.
“I thought we came into their gym and did a lot of really nice things,” Cougar head coach T.J. Hardeman said. “We worked hard and got into some good spots. In the end, we called timeout to set up a play and turned it over, and they came down and ran their play and hit the 3, and that’s the whole game right there in my mind. If we execute our play, we’re in good shape, and if we don’t, we’re not. As a young team in those kinds of critical situations, you get better with experience, but that really cost us when that happened.”
Moore-Porter led all scorers with 23 points, and her game-high 11 rebounds marked her sixth double-double of the season. Sophomore guard Michelle Byrd scored 15 points on 7-of-8 shooting from the field, but she picked up her fourth and fifth fouls on back-to-back possessions to foul out with 5:57 remaining in the contest.
Byrd capped a game-opening 11-4 run with a steal and breakaway layup with 15:27 left in the first half, and the Cougars ended the half with a 15-5 run after Westmont took its only lead of the half at 21-19 with 8:34 remaining. Azusa Pacific held the Warriors without a field goal for the final 5 minutes of the half, and Byrd scored the Cougars’ final 7 points, the last on a 3-pointer in the closing seconds of the period.
The Warriors were led by Case’s team-high 19 points, while Stevens added 12 points to go with an 11-point effort from Alisha Heglund. Neither team generated a significant advantage in any category, with both teams 1 shot under 50 percent from the field and both making just 3 treys. Westmont edged the rebounding battle, 36-32, and Azusa Pacific had 13 turnovers to the Warriors’ 14.
“This was a learning experience,” Hardeman said. “We talk a lot about learning from every game, whether we win or lose. It’s hard to duplicate that feeling in practice of a tie game in the closing seconds, where the opponent is. Those are the situations we’ve put ourselves in, and we’ve gotten much better at them, but we still have a long way to go on that to be the team that has the ball in the end that can execute.”
With the loss, Azusa Pacific wraps up the first half of Golden State Athletic Conference play at 5-5, dropping to 14-6 overall, while Westmont improves to 15-3 overall, 7-3 GSAC.
“We’re disappointed with where we’re at,” Hardeman said. “We feel like we’re better than that. We feel like we’re playing some good basketball, but not consistently enough. If we are more consistent, I still think the sky is the limit. I still feel like there’s not a team in the nation that we couldn’t go beat on a given night.”
The Cougars, who played 4 of the conference’s other 5 NAIA ranked opponents on the road in the first round, are home 6 times in the final 10-game stretch.
“I know we’re getting better,” Hardeman said. “It’s nice to know we’re going to have some of these tougher games at home. As much as it stung to lose on the road, we feel like we might play a little better at home, so that’s something to look forward to.”
The second half of the 20-game GSAC campaign begins Friday with a 5:30 p.m. matchup against Concordia at the Felix Event Center.