AZUSA, Calif.-- After an emotional roller coaster of a week, Golden State Athletic Conference co-champion Azusa Pacific’s postseason journey took a drastic detour, as the NAIA’s No. 7-ranked Cougars suffered a 76-67 defeat to Hope International Wednesday night in the first round of GSAC tournament play. The Royals’ junior center Champ Hood scored a game-high 28 points, shooting 13-for-13 from the field with 10 rebounds.
The first-round GSAC Tournament game was the fourth game in 9 days for both teams, and it was the second meeting between Azusa Pacific and Hope International in the same stretch. Packed in the middle of the 4-game stretch were 2 of the Cougars’ longest road trips in conference play, including a visit to Santa Barbara just 48 hours earlier when Azusa Pacific defeated Westmont to claim a share of the program’s first conference championship since 2002.
All-GSAC junior forward Alex Moore-Porter led the Cougars with 22 points and 5 rebounds, but her performance wasn’t enough to overshadow Hood’s shooting perfection and rally her team from a 1-point halftime deficit (31-30).
Since posting an 81-80 overtime win over the NAIA’s No. 8-ranked Point Loma Nazarene on Feb. 13, the Cougars have struggled to consistently play 40 minutes of quality basketball, rallying from 14 points down for wins twice in 3 games prior to tonight’s conference tournament opener.
Azusa Pacific opened the game shooting 42 percent (10-for-24) but could not get into a second-half rhythm, sinking just 12-of-38 shots (32 percent) after halftime. Hope International doubled the Cougars’ points in the paint in both halves and shot 59 percent (30-for-51) from the field, thanks mostly to Hood’s tremendous shooting night.
All-GSAC sophomore point guard Briana Hall and junior guard C.J. Hill each scored 14 points, and junior guard Michelle Byrd tallied a team-high 8 rebounds, with 8 points.
Azusa Pacific led just once in the second half, taking a 47-46 lead with 13:46 left to play on a pair of Hall free throws. The Royals answered with 8 straight points, but a Hill layup with 7:25 to play pulled the Cougars back to within 3 point at 56-53. Hood then scored 7 points in an 11-1 Hope International run that gave the Royals their biggest lead of the night, a 67-54 margin with 3:14 remaining.
Hall and Moore-Porter each hit 3-pointers in the final 2 minutes, pulling the Cougars back to within 6 points, 69-63, with 54 seconds to play, but 3 misfires from long distance coupled with Lauren Salazar’s breakaway layup with 22 seconds left sealed Azusa Pacific’s fate.
With the loss, the Cougars drop to 25-6 overall heading into the NAIA Women’s Basketball National Championship, which opens play in exactly 2 weeks in Jackson, Tennessee. Azusa Pacific’s national tournament berth is safe, regardless of tonight’s outcome. If Vanguard wins the GSAC Tournament, the Cougars will earn the GSAC’s second automatic berth by virtue of sharing the regular-season title with Vanguard. If any other team wins the GSAC’s second automatic bid by winning the conference tournament, Azusa Pacific will receive an at-large berth.
Hope International improves to 13-18 overall and advance to the GSAC Tournament semifinals to play Westmont.