AZUSA, Calif. -- The NAIA’s No. 7-ranked Azusa Pacific rallied from a 37-23 halftime deficit to escape its final regular-season home game with its share of the Golden State Athletic Conference lead intact with Tuesday night’s 74-72 win over Hope International at the Felix Event Center.
“At halftime it wasn’t anything about X’s and O’s, it was all about effort,” said head coach TJ Hardeman. “To be the team we want to be, you have to have a consistent good effort. That’s what I was disappointed in, it just wasn’t there tonight.”
Coming off an emotional loss Saturday against GSAC co-leader Vanguard, the Cougar defense allowed Hope International to do whatever it pleased in the first half, and the Royals took advantage by shooting 57 percent (16-for-28) from the field in the half. Hope International’s 14-point halftime lead was the second-largest halftime deficit Azusa Pacific has faced this year, just 2 points shy of Saturday’s 16-point margin against Vanguard.
“When you have an emotional game like Saturday’s and you lose, it’s a possibility to play flat,” said Hardeman. “All teams have an off-day on shooting, but there’s never an excuse to have an off-day on defense.”
Azusa Pacific showed more intensity in the second half, opening with a 24-8 run to give the Cougars their first lead of more than a point in the game with 11:16 remaining. The Cougars scored 9 straight points to start the run and finished it with 11 more in a row. Sophomore guard Briana Hall hit a pair of 3-pointers during the run.
“We really just encouraged them at halftime to put a little bit more effort and intensity in,” said Hardeman. “I think we did it in very brief stretches in the second half, but we looked like a team that was just measuring the smallest amount of how hard we’d have to try to actually win without giving any extra effort.”
Junior center Kristie Hala’ufia tallied a season-high 14 rebounds, finishing with exactly a third of Azusa Pacific’s 42 boards, and she finished with a game-high 21 points.
“It was just a lack of energy,” said Hala’ufia. “Our all-out effort just was not there and it started in the first 5 minutes. We didn’t bring the energy from the beginning and that’s why we were down by 14 at halftime.”
The Cougars finally found their shooting stroke during halftime, improving from a 30 percent (10-for-33) first half to a 55 percent (21-for-38) clip in the second half. Junior forward Alex Moore-Porter scored 16 of her 20 points after halftime and finished with 11 rebounds for the double-double. Hall finished with 13 points.
“We need to come out stronger,” said Hala’ufia. “We need to play all 40 minutes with energy and with intensity. We need to be the aggressor.”
Sophomore guard Kasey Philyaw led Hope International with 14 points, sinking all 5 of her first-half shots, including a pair of 3-pointers.
With the win, Azusa Pacific improves to 23-5 overall, 16-2 GSAC, while Hope International drops to 11-17 overall, 6-12 GSAC. The Cougars close out the regular season with a pair of road games before hosting a first-round GSAC tournament game on Wednesday, March 3.