SANTA CLARITA, Calif. -- There aren’t a lot of ways to eliminate a 9-point deficit in just 2 minutes, but the NAIA’s No. 9-ranked Azusa Pacific did exactly that with a 14-4 run that lifted the Cougars to a 74-73 road win over The Master’s College. The win boosts Azusa Pacific into sole possession of first place in the Golden State Athletic Conference, with Point Loma Nazarene dropping into second place following a 70-53 loss at Vanguard Tuesday night.
Junior forward Alex Moore-Porter led all scorers with 28 points, and she scored half of them in the final 7:15 to revive the Cougars from a second-half funk. Junior center Kristie Hala’ufia scored the game-winner on a putback with 8 seconds left after Azusa Pacific had trailed by as many as 11 points in the final 10 minutes.
“I wouldn’t say there wasn’t a panic with us, but there was definitely a good sense of urgency,” Azusa Pacific head coach T.J. Hardeman said. “We needed to make it happen both offensively and defensively. We needed to get good shots, and get them quickly, because 9 points is a significant amount. I think it’s a mark of a good team to have good composure to keep playing hard, play the full 40 minutes, and see what happens.”
Erica Inge scored a pair of layups on back-to-back possessions to give The Master’s a 69-60 advantage with 2:22 remaining in the game, but Moore-Porter responded with a 3-point play that started the game-ending 14-4 Cougar run. After Inge knocked down a pair of free throws it was Moore-Porter who nailed a trey that pulled the Cougars to within 5 points (71-66) with 1:45 to play. Junior guard C.J. Hill came up with a steal at the other end, and sophomore point guard Briana Hall drilled another 3-pointer with 1:18 left that made it a 2-point game at 73-71.
Inge hit another pair of free throws with 1:06 left for the Mustangs’ final points of the game, but Azusa Pacific picked up 3 more points less than 20 seconds later when junior center Hala’ufia scored inside while being fouled and made the ensuing free throw to get the Cougars within a point, 73-72, with 48 seconds to play.
“We needed some points fairly quickly, and I was fortunate to have offenses drawn up that put me in position to score,” Moore-Porter said. “I think what’s great about our team this year is we believe in each other and we have that confidence to execute plays under pressure. Nothing seems out of reach when we all work together under pressure to make defensive stops and get good shots off.”
Hill, who tallied a game-high 4 steals, trapped Brittany Henderson near the Mustang 3-point line for another pick, and Hala’ufia put back a Hall miss with 8 seconds left to give Azusa Pacific a 1-point lead at 74-73. After timeouts by both teams, Jenna Reed’s shot in the closing seconds missed long, and Hall’s boxout of the Mustangs’ weakside rebounder prevented any putback opportunity as time expired.
Moore-Porter and Hala’ufia each posted their fifth individual double-doubles of the season for Azusa Pacific, and the pair combined for 14 offensive rebounds that gave the Cougars a 27-9 advantage in second-chance points. Moore-Porter finished with 28 points and a season-high 14 rebounds, while Hala’ufia tallied 15 of her 18 points in the second half and pulled down 10 boards. Hall registered 16 points, 6 assists and 4 rebounds, including the game-clinching defensive board.
Neither team led by more than 4 points in the opening half, and Azusa Pacific used a 9-2 run in the first 2-plus minutes of the second half to expand a 28-27 halftime advantage into the Cougars’ largest lead of the game at 37-29 with 17:47 to play. Hill scored the last 5 points of the run, and her layup with 16:30 to play gave Azusa Pacific a 40-33 lead before the Mustangs reeled off 13 straight points, part of a 23-5 run that gave The Master’s a 56-45 lead, its biggest of the game, with 9:45 remaining.
“We were not hitting on all cylinders,” Hardeman said. “The Master’s was well-prepared, but we were slow defensively all night. When we started the second half strong, I think everyone had the thought that we had the game under control, but they battled back and got energized. It was a game of momentum swings, and all of a sudden they had a pep in their step and we were left looking at each other wondering what was happening.”
Annie Gillespie, who hit back-to-back 3-pointers in the Mustangs’ game-changing run, scored a team-high 20 points and was 1 of 4 players in double figures for The Master’s. Inge finished with 16 points and a game-high 8 assists, Lena Rivera tallied 14 points, and Brittany Henderson added 11 points along with a team-high 7 rebounds.
The Cougars, winners of 7 straight, now have an 18-4 overall record and lead the conference with an 11-1 GSAC mark.
“We still have to go to Vanguard like Point Loma did tonight, and they’re very tough to play there,” Hardeman said. “We also still have to visit Biola and play Point Loma at home, too. We treat every game like it’s the championship game and try to concentrate on what we can control each night.”
The Master’s drops to 11-9 overall and 6-6 in GSAC play. Azusa Pacific hosts California Baptist in a 5:30 p.m. contest on Friday, Feb. 5, before heading into next week’s treacherous slate that features a Tuesday, Feb. 9 visit to Biola along with a clash at home against Point Loma Nazarene (Feb. 13).