COSTA MESA, Calif. -- The NAIA’s No. 19-ranked Azusa Pacific bowed out of the GSAC Postseason Tournament with Friday’s 73-71 loss to No. 2-ranked Vanguard, the defending NAIA champion, but the Cougars may be one of the NAIA’s most dangerous teams at the national tournament in 2 weeks if the previous 3 weeks are any indication.
Azusa Pacific took an early-season road trip to the Rotary Classic in Jackson, Tenn., the site of the 2009 NAIA Division I Women’s Basketball National Championship, and posted wins over a pair of teams currently ranked in the top 5. Twice in the last 3 weeks, the Cougars have had the ball in their hands with a chance to tie the defending national champs, and with an at-large bid to the NAIA Tournament now all but secured, Azusa Pacific gets a week and a half rest before taking the floor in Jackson once again.
Sophomore forward Alex Moore-Porter scored 12 of Azusa Pacific’s final 18 points, helping erase a 60-53 deficit, including a game-tying 3-point play with 5:09 to play and a layup with 4:23 remaining that gave the Cougars their final lead of the game at 63-62. She also hit a 3-point bomb with 2:57 left that cut Vanguard’s lead back to 1 at 67-66 to set up sophomore guard C.J. Hill’s game-tying free throw on the back end of a 2-shot foul less than a minute later. Moore-Porter finished with a team-high21 points and a game-high 10 rebounds for her third consecutive double-double and 13th of the year, and junior center Kristie Hala’ufia added her 10th 20-point game of the season to go with 8 boards that helped Azusa Pacific out-rebound its fifth straight opponent, this time by a 38-31 margin.
Hala’ufia twice cut Vanguard’s lead to 2 points in the final 90 seconds, the second time on a layup with 40 seconds to play. The Lions’ Sarah Boyd misfired on a jumper with the shot clock winding down, and Azusa Pacific came away with the team rebound, one of its 23 second-half boards, to set up the final possession. The ball ended up in Moore-Porter’s hands for a mid-range jumper, but the miss was controlled by Vanguard as time expired to seal the result.
Moore-Porter and Hala’ufia combined for just 7 points in the opening half, although Azusa Pacific took a 27-25 halftime advantage thanks to strong backcourt play from guards Briana Hall and Hill. Hall hit the Cougars’ only first-half trey and scored all 7 of her points in the half, and Hill tallied 3 of her team’s 6 steals in an opening period that started with a 21-9 Cougar run through the first 10 minutes of play. Azusa Pacific went cold over the final 3 minutes of the half to allow Vanguard to cut a 27-19 advantage into the narrow 2-point halftime margin.
Rachel Copeland opened the second-half scoring with a 3-pointer, the first bucked in a 9-0 burst, but sophomore guard Michelle Byrd answered with a trey that got the Cougars going for a 7-0 run that tied the game at 34-34. Diana Neves broke the tie with another 3-pointer, Vanguard’s only field goal during a 5-minute stretch, but the Cougars went 6 minutes with only 1 field goal, a Moore-Porter layup, and were only able to claim a 3-point lead at 40-37 with 13:50 to play.
Vanguard’s Lauren Gregory scored a game-high 23 points to lead Vanguard, the 2009 GSAC regular-season champion. She didn’t miss a shot after halftime, torching the nets for 21 points on 5-of-5 shooting from the field that included 3 treys, as well as a perfect 8-of-8 effort at the free throw line that included 4 clutch makes from the charity stripe on back-to-back possessions in the final 2 minutes that gave Vanguard a 71-67 lead. Gregory also grabbed a team-high 9 rebounds, despite playing just 22 minutes due to foul trouble from a first half in which she was whistled for 3 fouls in 11 minutes of action.
Vanguard, now 28-3 on the season, advances to Monday’s GSAC Postseason Tournament championship game, where it will host GSAC regular-season runner-up Point Loma Nazarene in a rematch of the 2008 tourney title game. Since Vanguard has already claimed 1 of the conference’s 2 automatic bids to the national tournament, and Point Loma Nazarene will receive the other by virtue of advancing to the conference tournament title game opposite the regular-season champion Lions.
Azusa Pacific drops to 22-10 overall and will await next week’s final rating, which will determine which teams will receive at-large bids into the NAIA Tournament’s 32-team field. The final rating will be released on Wednesday, March 11, with the full tournament bracket issued the following day.