AZUSA, Calif. -- Four different players took turns playing the hero for the NAIA’s No. 19-ranked Azusa Pacific, each making baskets in the final 5 minutes to give the Cougars breathing room in a 61-56 win over No. 23-ranked Biola in the first round of the GSAC Postseason Tournament Wednesday night.
The Cougars improved to 12-2 at home on the season, but the rest of the postseason will take place away from the Felix Event Center, as Azusa Pacific is the lowest remaining seed in the conference tournament and is all but assured of its sixth consecutive NAIA Tournament appearance. Azusa Pacific advances to Friday night’s GSAC Tournament semifinals, where it will visit defending NAIA and 2009 GSAC regular-season champion Vanguard at 7:30 p.m. in Costa Mesa.
All-GSAC sophomore forward Alex Moore-Porter recorded her twelfth double-double of the season, scoring 13 of her game-high 18 points after halftime to help the Cougars protect a second-half lead that twice reached 13 points. Meanwhile, she also tied a career-high with 15 rebounds, helping Azusa Pacific out-rebound the GSAC’s team rebounds leader for the third straight meeting between the teams, this time by a 41-35 tally.
“Winning that battle helped us win the game,” said Azusa Pacific head coach T.J. Hardeman, whose team made just 3-of-19 from 3-point range and 10-of-19 from the free throw line. “They played very good defense, and a lot of our threes came late in the shot clock.”
With 12:10 remaining in the first half, freshman center Amber Williams knocked down a pair of free throws to give Azusa Pacific a 43-30 lead, and sophomore guard Michelle Byrd’s 3-pointer 2 minutes later pushed the lead back to 12 points with 10:02 remaining.
That’s when Biola, which rallied from a 13-point deficit with 8 minutes left in the teams’ first meeting of the year in La Mirada for a 61-56 win of its own, put together a quick 7-0 run capped by back-to-back buckets from All-GSAC center Megann Alberts. That cut the lead to 46-41 with 8:13 remaining, but the Cougars’ All-GSAC center Kristie Hala’ufia answered with 2 of Azusa Pacific’s 40 points in the paint, and sophomore guard C.J. Hill hit both free throws after she was fouled on a fast-break started by 1 of Byrd’s game-high 3 steals with 7:35 to play.
“The tension wasn’t the same as before,” Moore-Porter said. “I think now we’re more sure of ourselves and what we’re capable of doing. It was more about settling down and playing smarter versus before when we were more inexperienced and got more flustered.”
Biola’s other All-GSAC frontcourt honoree, forward Jessilyn Conicelli, scored back-to-back baskets to spark another 7-0 run that pulled the Eagles to within 2 at 50-48 with 5:19 remaining. That’s where the Eagles would stay, however, as Williams got a friendly Felix Event Center roll on an 8-foot jumper in the paint with 4:37 to play, the first of 4 Azusa Pacific answers each time Biola trimmed the Cougar lead to 2 points. With 2:26 remaining, freshman point guard Briana Hall sparked her own fast break with a steal, and after missing the layup, got right back into the play across the key from where Moore-Porter had pulled down the offensive rebound. She got the ball right back and laid it in, making her only basket of the game an important one that pushed the lead to 56-52.
“Rebounding is just effort,” Moore-Porter said. “You just have to come to play and make up your mind that you’re not going to let anyone else get a rebound.”
Hill gave the Cougars a 58-54 lead with 46 seconds remaining to answer a Biola bucket, but Charrise Reece drove the length of the floor for a layup of her own to pull the Eagles back to within 58-56 with 34 seconds to play. Moore-Porter delivered the final blow to Biola’s comeback hopes, dropping in a layup with 13 seconds remaining, and she grabbed the rebound when Biola missed the front end of a one-and-one opportunity with 2 seconds to play and hit 1-of-2 free throws at the other end to provide the final margin.
Hala’ufia finished with 11 points, and Williams registered 7 points and 7 rebounds off the bench, and Byrd added 10 points, 4 rebounds and 3 assists without a turnover to help lead the Cougars. Biola had 4 players finish in double figures, led by Alberts’ 14, although she was held to just 4 rebounds.
“Anytime it’s going to be a grind-it-out game, we feel pretty good about it because we’ve got some big bodies to grind with,” Hardeman said. “I think both teams had a similar plan, to get it inside and see what the bigs could do. Ours did a good job of getting it, converting and then rebounding.”
The teams combined to shoot just 32 percent in the opening half, and Byrd snapped a 3-minute scoreless stretch to push Azusa Pacific into double-digits with an 11-5 lead with 12:02 left before halftime. Christina Barclay answered on Biola’s ensuing possession before the game went without another field goal for nearly 3 more minutes. Hill’s conventional 3-point play with 1 minute remaining gave the Cougars their largest lead of the half at 26-18 before a late Biola bucket cut the halftime margin to 26-20.
“Sometimes games don’t go your way,” said Moore-Porter, who shot 2-of-9 from the field in the first half before hitting 6-of-9 after halftime. “Sometimes shots don’t go in that typically go in, so you have to stick with fundamentals like playing defense, getting rebounds and getting scrappy plays. It’s not the best to watch, but we still won because we executed when we needed to.”
Biola’s 20-point period was the second-lowest scoring output for either half by a Cougar opponent this season, and it was the seventh straight half in which Azusa Pacific held a team to 30 points or less. Moore-Porter pulled down 9 rebounds in the first half alone, and Byrd was the halftime scoring leader with 7 points.
Azusa Pacific is now 22-9 overall, while Biola drops to 19-11 as it awaits its postseason fate, a potential NAIA Tournament at-large bid which rests on next week’s final NAIA Coaches Poll.