SANTA BARBARA, Calif. -- Azusa Pacific’s last 3 trips to Santa Barbara have ended in disappointment, but those defeats were avenged with one sweet victory, as the NAIA’s No. 7-ranked Cougars rallied from a 14-point second-half deficit for an 82-74 win Monday night at Westmont that lifted Azusa Pacific to its first Golden State Athletic Conference championship since 2002.
Junior forward Alex Moore-Porter scored 14 of her team-high 24 points in the second half, including a pair of key baskets in a 20-5 run that erased a 10-point Westmont lead and gave the Cougars the lead for good. Moore-Porter pulled Azusa Pacific to within 1 point at 68-67, finishing off a possession kept alive by 2 offensive rebounds, and she finished the run by giving the Cougars a 73-68 lead with 3:36 to play.
“Getting stops and matching their intensity was what helped us control the tempo,” Moore-Porter said. “That swing of momentum and emotion is what gets you through these types of games, because the team that forces its will upon the other team is usually the team that wins.”
After Westmont pulled to within 2 points, 73-71, with 1:43 remaining, Moore-Porter found junior center Kristie Hala’ufia for an easy bucket in the paint, the first of back-to-back Hala’ufia buckets that pushed the lead to 77-71 in the final minute. Moore-Porter rebounded Westmont’s ensuing miss and made both free throws to give Azusa Pacific an 8-point cushion at 79-71, its largest lead of the game.
“We did a good job of setting each other up, and I think that’s what separates good teams from great teams,” Moore-Porter said. “If you’re willing to share the ball and put someone in position to score, that’s better than just scoring on your own.”
The Cougars surrendered just 2 field goals during an 8-minute stretch that provided the 15-point turnaround, a run of 12 straight Westmont possessions in which the Warriors never managed more than 1 field goal attempt. Out-rebounded at the half, Azusa Pacific pulled down 30 of its 47 boards in the second half. Hala’ufia led the way, grabbing a season-high 16 rebounds to go with 15 points for her eighth double-double of the season.
“If the game was 30 minutes long, we would have been in trouble,” Cougar head coach T.J. Hardeman said. “I was proud of us to stay after it and continue to work, but that’s what we’ve done all year. We picked up our defense a little bit, and we made a stronger effort rebounding – giving them 1 shot, outlet (passing) and going.”
Four minutes into the second half, the Cougars trailed by 14 points, 57-43. After Azusa Pacific briefly pulled to within 7 points twice in the next 3 minutes, Westmont pushed the lead back into double-digits at 63-53 with a Tawny McCain jumper with 11:11 to play before the game-changing run over the next 8 minutes.
In the first half, the Cougars led just once, taking a 1-point advantage at 15-14 on junior guard C.J. Hill’s 3-pointer with 12:58 left in the period. That lead lasted for just 1 possession, however, and Westmont later used a 12-4 run late in the half to break a 26-26 tie and take a 43-39 lead into halftime.
“We came here hungry,” Hala’ufia said. “We didn’t start off the way we wanted to, but we don’t panic when we’re behind. At halftime we knew that we weren’t playing the way we wanted. We also know there’s 40 minutes in a game, and we had 20 minutes left to prove ourselves.”
Hill finished with 17 points, making 7-of-11 from the field including a perfect 5-for-5 on 2-point attempts, and sophomore point guard Briana Hall added 14 points, 6 rebounds and 2 steals. Moore-Porter and Hala’ufia were a combined 17-of-28 from the field, and Azusa Pacific shot 49 percent (30-for-61) despite hitting just 3-of-15 from 3-point range.
“To have to come up here on the road to win the league championship was tough,” Hardeman said. “There’s a huge sense of relief to come up here and do it, especially when we made it so hard on ourselves. We knew Westmont was a good team that would play hard, and anytime you’re able to beat them on their floor, it’s a huge win.”
The Cougars, who won back-to-back conference titles in 2001 and 2002, hadn’t finished higher than a tie for second in the past 7 seasons. Azusa Pacific shares the GSAC crown with Vanguard, a team that never held sole possession of the GSAC lead all year but beat the Cougars in Costa Mesa Feb. 20 to move into the first-place tie. Both teams won the final 3 games after that meeting, although Azusa Pacific had to win its last 2 on the road while Vanguard closed out the season with back-to-back home wins over unranked opponents. The Cougars wrap up the regular season with a 25-5 overall record, including an 18-2 GSAC mark.
“Words can’t really describe how relieved you are, and it doesn’t really sink in until you’re sitting at home, where in the middle of going through your normal routine, you can think about how you just won a GSAC championship,” Moore-Porter said. “We’re very blessed and very happy that it panned out this way for us and our hard work paid off. That doesn’t happen for all the teams in the league, so we’re very grateful that things went our way.”
Westmont, now 16-12 overall and 9-11 GSAC, was led by Elizabeth Evancoe, who scored a game-high 26 points with 4 treys, and Amber Stevens was 1 point shy of a triple-double (9 points, 11 rebounds, 10 assists). Stevens also had 5 of the Warriors’ 12 steals.
“There’s really no words to express how we’re feeling right now,” Hala’ufia said. “We feel great as a team, and we feel more together than at any time since we started practice in the fall. We’re still not satisfied, though. The national tournament is coming up, and it’s time to gear up and get ready for that next step.”
Azusa Pacific enters the GSAC Postseason Tournament as the conference’s No. 2 seed. After the conference tiebreakers failed to separate the Cougars from Vanguard for the top spot, a coach’s vote resulted in Vanguard picking up the No. 1 seed along with the conference’s first of 2 automatic berths into the NAIA Tournament later this month. Azusa Pacific is the No. 2 seed in the GSAC Tournament, hosting No. 7-seeded Hope International at the Felix Event Center in a 7:30 p.m. matchup on Wednesday, March 3.