COSTA MESA, Calif. -- None of the Golden State Athletic Conference’s top 3 teams has lost a conference home game this season, and Saturday continued that trend, with the NAIA’s No. 3-ranked Vanguard pulling even with No. 7-ranked Azusa Pacific for the GSAC lead with Saturday’s 88-63 win at The Pit in Costa Mesa.
With 3 GSAC games remaining, Azusa Pacific and Vanguard both stand at 15-2 in GSAC play, a game ahead of third-place Point Loma Nazarene (15-3) in the loss column. With 3 games remaining, the league’s top 3 teams have all split with each other, and Point Loma’s loss to fourth-place Biola giving Azusa Pacific and Vanguard the inside track to claiming their share of the GSAC regular-season title.
“We entered the season with the goal to win the conference, and we still have control of how that turns out,” Cougar head coach T.J. Hardeman said. “We’ll put this behind us and get right back to work to prepare for Hope International.”
Junior forward Alex Moore-Porter scored a game-high 25 points, but the Cougars’ 28-turnover total was twice that of Vanguard’s 14. Azusa Pacific’s 28 giveaways were just 1 off the Cougars’ season-high, and Vanguard took advantage, launching 70 shots to Azusa Pacific’s 46 attempts from the field and registering a 29-8 edge in points off turnovers.
“It was their night,” Hardeman said. “They played really well, and we didn’t play very well. They shot the ball well, and they took care of the ball. We were very disappointed that we didn’t handle the ball well and we didn’t shoot very well. When you do those 2 things against a very good team, you’re not going to be very successful.”
Vanguard point guard Bridgette Reyes tallied 4 of the Lions’ 18 steals, and she cashed in 9-of-17 from the field to score a team-high 24 points. Four others reached double figures for Vanguard, although only 1 of them shot better than 50 percent from the field. Diana Neves contributed 14 points off the bench, Jaclyn Blied tallied 12 points, and Rachel Copeland hit for 11 points with a trio of 3-pointers.
Azusa Pacific made just 5 first-half field goals, but Vanguard committed 14 first-half fouls to send the Cougars to the free throw line 20 times in the first half alone. Moore-Porter’s jumper in the paint with 16:30 remaining in the half was Azusa Pacific’s only made field goal over the next 12 minutes, a drought that allowed Vanguard to push the lead to 20 points with a 17-0 run.
Moore-Porter canned a pair of free throws with 8:29 left to put the Cougars on the board for the first time since her bucket 8 minutes prior. Vanguard went cold for a 3-minute, 30-second stretch, but Azusa Pacific failed to take advantage, trimming just 6 points off the lead, all on free throws, before Neves’ trey with 5:50 left sparked a 7-0 Lions run over the next minute that pushed the lead to 34-13 with 4:47 remaining. Junior guard C.J. Hill finally knocked down a 3-pointer on the ensuing possession, snapping the Cougars’ field-goal slump, and she converted a conventional 3-point play the next trip down to cut the lead to 34-19.
Hill knocked down 2 free throws with just under a minute to play before halftime, cutting Vanguard’s lead to 37-24, but Neves drilled another 3-pointer with 20 seconds to left to give the Lions a 40-24 halftime lead.
Azusa Pacific twice pulled within 13 points when Moore-Porter scored on back-to-back possessions with just under 14 minutes to play, but Blied scored the first and last 3 points of a 12-2 run that gave Vanguard a 60-37 lead at the midway point of the second half.
Sophomore point guard Briana Hall scored 14 points, hitting 10-of-12 from the charity stripe, and Hill add 8 points to go with a team-high 3 steals. Only 2 other Cougars went into the scoring column, with junior center Kristie Hala’ufia tallying 8 points and a game-high 10 rebounds, and junior guard Teri Higgenbottom hitting both of her second-half shots for 5 points.
With the loss, Azusa Pacific drops to 22-5 overall, 15-2 GSAC, while Vanguard improves to 19-2 overall, 15-2 GSAC. The Cougars host Hope International on Tuesday, Feb. 23, before visiting San Diego Christian (Feb. 25) and Westmont (March 1) to close out the regular season.