AZUSA, Calif. -- With nothing to lose, the NAIA’s No. 18-ranked Azusa Pacific dominated defending NAIA champion Vanguard over the final 20 minutes, out-scoring the No. 2-ranked Lions by 20 points over the final 20 minutes of play. Unfortunately, the comeback from a 22-point second-half deficit left the Cougars a bucket short in an 87-85 overtime defeat Saturday night at the Felix Event Center.
“We need to play the entire game like we played in the second half,” Cougar head coach T.J. Hardeman said. “As the game starts, some of our young players are forgetting what they’re supposed to do, and it takes them awhile to adjust. In the second half, we did a lot more of what we practiced (during the week), but in the first half there were too many times where we didn’t execute those things. As we do that and get some leadership from our guards, we’re going to be fine.”
Junior center Kristie Hala’ufia tied the game at 77-77 with 10 seconds left in regulation to send the game to overtime, and the Cougars had the ball with a chance to tie in nearly identical fashion in the closing seconds of overtime. Sophomore forward Alex Moore-Porter had trouble establishing position in the post after Azusa Pacific spent its final timeout with 10 seconds left in overtime. The ball was knocked away towards the baseline, and Hala’ufia hit the floor to keep it alive. With no timeouts remaining, Hala’ufia had to avoid drawing a traveling call from the floor while finding an open teammate, and by the time she had gotten the ball safely into Cougar hands, the final horn sounded to end the thrilling finish.
Hala’ufia and Moore-Porter scored a game-high 24 points each, combining for 36 of their 48 points after halftime. Moore-Porter also pulled down 10 rebounds, a game-high, for her 10th double-double of the season.
“Vanguard plays 5 out, so a lot of times when you’re rebounding, you’re one of the wide players,” Hardeman said. “In the second half, you could see that everybody figured out that we needed all 5 players in there rebounding, and we did a much better job of it. Our bigs are used to standing right around the basket, which isn’t as much of a rebounding area as that 12-to-15 foot area where the rebounds were falling tonight.”
With 14:40 remaining in regulation, Sarah Boyd hit the front end of a pair of free throws to give Vanguard a commanding 63-41 lead. The Cougars, who had trailed by double-digits since just past the midway point of the opening half, needed just 8 seconds out of a timeout following the free throws to find Hala’ufia for an easy bucket underneath that sparked a 31-4 run over the next 9 minutes. The Cougars scored 14 straight points to start the run, and 11 more in a row at the end of it to take a 72-67 lead on sophomore guard Michelle Byrd’s layup with 5:52 to play in regulation.
Azusa Pacific held the lead until Rachel Copeland hit back-to-back 3-pointers that turned Vanguard’s 4-point deficit into a 77-75 lead with 2:08 in regulation. Three of the next 4 possessions resulted in turnovers, including a crucial missed layup that never drew the rim, resulting in a shot-clock violation when the Vanguard offensive board would have forced Azusa Pacific to foul. However, because the ball had only glanced off the backboard, the Cougars got the ball with 21 seconds left for one final chance to tie. They worked the ball inside to Hala’ufia, who knocked down an 8-foot jumper from the right side to tie the game, and Nondi Johnson’s 3-point attempt as time expired was off the mark, sending the game to overtime.
“I’d be lying if I said we weren’t frustrated, because we really feel like we are good enough to beat them,” Hardeman said. “We’re a better team than we were showing, so what we talked about (at halftime and during timeouts) was representing ourselves and representing what we perform, regardless of the score.”
The extra period featured 2 ties and 3 lead changes, but all 5 of Azusa Pacific’s attempts from the field in overtime came from 3-point range. Byrd’s gave the Cougars an 82-81 lead with 3:33 to play, and freshman guard Briana Hall swished another with 51 seconds remaining ended her team’s scoring drought to trim a 5-point Vanguard lead to 87-85. A turnover on the Lions’ ensuing possession gave Azusa Pacific the ball with 16 seconds remaining, leading to the final sequence.
Vanguard built an 18-point halftime lead at 45-27, thanks to 15 second-chance points that came from the Lions’ 11 offensive boards, part of their 21-10 first-half rebounding edge over the Cougars. Vanguard, the GSAC’s leader in both 3-point attempts and percentage, made 10-of-34 (29 percent) from long range, led by Copeland’s 7-for-13 from beyond the arc for a team-high 23 points. Azusa Pacific dished out 24 assists on its 29 made field goals, and Byrd led the way along with sophomore guard C.J. Hill with 7 assists apiece. Byrd also scored 8 points and grabbed 10 rebounds in a solid all-around effort.
Azusa Pacific’s 3-game losing streak is its first skid of that length since 2003, and the Cougars drop into a 3-way tie for fourth in the GSAC with Biola and California Baptist at 9-8 in conference play. Azusa Pacific’s overall record now stands at 18-9, while Vanguard improves to 23-3 overall, 16-1 GSAC with 3 conference games to play.
“I’d like to see us continue to build on the second half of this game, to see us continue to play hard and play with energy,” Hardeman said. “We need to win both games next week, and I think we need to beat Westmont the following Monday. The team that wins the national tournament is usually not the team that has the most wins entering the tournament, it’s the team that’s hot at that time. Right now, I’d say we’re pretty hot – we just beat Vanguard by 18 in the second half. That’s fairly hot, we just need to continue to do that.”
Azusa Pacific’s 3-game finishing stretch features a visit to Hope International on Tuesday, Feb. 24, then a home date with San Diego Christian on Thursday, Feb. 26. Both of the Cougars’ opponents in the upcoming week have already been eliminated from the 8-team GSAC Postseason Tournament, and a pair of wins are vital to Azusa Pacific’s hopes of clinching fourth-place and the corresponding postseason tournament first-round home game that accompanies it.