AZUSA, Calif.--Sophomore guard C.J. Hill knocked down 2 free throws for the NAIA's No. 18-ranked Azusa Pacific with a second left to clinch a 68-66 victory over No. 20-ranked Biola Tuesday evening at the Felix Event Center. The Cougars made an inspired 20-point second-half comeback spurred by another double-double performance of sophomore forward Alex Moore-Porter, who registered 21 points and 14 rebounds for the game.
With 16 seconds left to go, Azusa Pacific and Biola were tied 66-66 and the Cougars had one final possession to earn a thrilling come-from-behind victory before overtime. The Cougars waited until the last second to release a shot attempt. Sophomore guard Michelle Byrd powered herself into the paint and attempted a lay-up. The shot bounced off the rim and Hill grabbed the offensive rebound as both squads fought vigorously for the ball. In the ensuing melee, Hill was fouled by Biola forward Megann Alberts. After Hill converted both free throws, Moore-Porter intercepted a desperation Biola pass to secure the win.
"In practice all the time, we simulate game-ending situations on the free throw line," Cougar head coach T.J. Hardeman said. "It's hard to simulate it with a large screaming crowd though as was the case tonight. C.J. knew she had to get the ball in her hands and she's usually back defensively for us. We knew we were going to shoot it late, so everyone crashed the boards. It's exciting for us and for her. We're happy to have her on the line."
Azusa Pacific established itself with a 20-15 lead early in the first half, but Biola closed the half with a 20-9 run. Biola rolled to a 35-29 halftime lead, holding a 12-2 advantage over Azusa Pacific in points off turnovers. Byrd had an excellent first half performance, scoring 10 points, 4 rebounds, and a pair of 3-pointers. The Cougars would not regain the lead they relinquished until Hill made her last-second free throws.
Biola came out on all cylinders to open the second half, proceeding to outscore Azusa Pacific 16-3 to increase their lead over the Cougars to 20 points. It was the exclamation point of a 37-12 run in a 15-minute span for the Eagles, sparked by Biola's leading scorer Jennifer French, who converted a trio of 3-pointers during the lead changeover.
"We knew we had to stay focused. It wasn't over when we were down 20," Hill said. "We needed to keep pushing and driving so we can get fouls for 2 at the line. We had more free throws in the second half and it helped us come back."
Azusa Pacific slowly but persistently crept back into the contest, taking it one possession at a time. The Cougars closed the lead to within 10 points from Hill's only 3-pointer with 7:05 to go and kept the game within that margin for the rest of their comeback.
The comeback's key moment which gave Azusa Pacific all the momentum was a 4-point sequence by Moore-Porter with 4:14 to go. Biola led 59-54 at that moment but an Eagle foul granted Moore-Porter with 2 free throws. Moore-Porter converted both free throws and Azusa Pacific had an in-bounds pass after the conversion. Byrd attempted a lay-up, then Moore-Porter tipped in a lay-up off the offensive rebound. When Biola regained possession, the Eagles held a 59-58 lead.
With 2:05 to go, Biola forward French made a 3-pointer off the right side to put the Eagles up 66-60. Biola would not score again and the Cougars closed the final deficit with 2 pairs of free throws from Moore-Porter, who added a jumper in the paint, and freshman guard Briana Hall. Eventually, Hill took advantage of her opportunity to cap the 20-point comeback and bring Azusa Pacific home with the victory.
"The momentum off the crowd contributed to our pressure," Hardeman said. "When we were pressuring, the crowd was screaming and it made it a little tougher on Biola. The crowd encouraged our kids not to quit at all. When there's a ton of people here, you can't quit."
Four players scored in double-figures for the Cougars: Moore-Porter (21 points), Hall (15), Byrd (12), and junior center Kristie Hala'ufia (11). In addition to Moore-Porter's double-double, Byrd contributed one of her own with 10 rebounds.
"You really don't want to get that sixth or seventh conference loss," Moore-Porter said. "That's what we're playing for. We're playing to win every game because we need to win as many games as possible because it's such a tough league that a lot of teams are capable of beating you. But Azusa Pacific doesn't want to be one of those teams when someone beats us. We're going to remain focused and hopefully win out the rest of our games."
With the win, Azusa Pacific advances to 18-6, 9-5 in GSAC, while Biola drops to 14-8, 7-7 in GSAC. The Cougars currently holds fourth place in the GSAC. Azusa Pacific will next travel to second-place Point Loma Nazarene for a 5:30 p.m. contest on Saturday, Feb. 14 in the Golden Gymnasium at San Diego.