JACKSON, Tenn. -- Azusa Pacific reeled off 14 straight points in just over 3 minutes midway through the half, taking the lead for good in a 71-57 win over Montana Tech in the final game of the first round of the NAIA Women’s Basketball National Championship. The Cougars, seeded second in their quarter, advance to a second-round matchup Saturday night at 9:45 p.m. with third-seeded Freed-Hardeman (Tenn.).
Juniors C.J. Hill and Alex Moore-Porter scored 12 of the 14 points in the run, and in less than 200 seconds of play, the Cougars turned a 39-35 deficit into their first double-digit lead at 49-39 with 11:56 to play in the game. Hill scored a career-high 24 points on the night, scoring 16 in the second half to help Azusa Pacific break free from a 29-29 halftime deadlock. She tied the game at 39-39 with a layup in the paint, and less than 3 minutes later came up with a steal that led to her own fast-break bucket for a 47-39 advantage.
Hill led all scorers with her 24-point effort, and Moore-Porter turned in a 21-point, 13-rebound double-double, crashing the glass for 7 of Azusa Pacific’s 17 offensive boards. Junior center Kristie Hala’ufia added 8 points, 7 rebounds, 2 blocks and 2 steals, and junior guard Michelle Byrd filled a variety of roles throughout the night, finishing with 7 points, 7 rebounds, 5 assists and 5 steals.
Azusa Pacific trailed just twice in the opening half, both times by a single point in the first 4 minutes of the game. After Byrd’s baseline trey with 4:36 in the period gave the Cougars their largest lead of the half at 26-19, Montana Tech scored 10 of the final 13 points of the period to pull even at the break, 29-29.
After committing 9 first-half turnovers, the Cougars’ halftime adjustments resulted in better ball control and just 3 second-half giveaways. Moore-Porter scored 13 of her 21 after halftime, and Byrd pulled away 4 of her game-high 5 steals in the second half.
Montana Tech scored back-to-back baskets to start the second half, taking a 33-29 lead before Hala’ufia answered with a deep layup under heavy defensive pressure. A comment to the referee on her way back up the court resulted in a technical foul, and the Orediggers took advantage by hitting the technical free throws and converting on the ensuing possession to take their largest lead of the game at 37-31 with 17:33 to play.
Moore-Porter scored Azusa Pacific’s next 3 baskets to start a 25-6 run that included the 14-point surge, finishing off the rally with a jumper that gave the Cougars their first of 3 13-point leads, at 56-43 with 9:37 remaining. That lead was the largest of the game until Hill got free behind Montana Tech’s full-court pressure in the final minute for a fast-break layup and free throw for the conventional 3-point play that provided the final 71-57 margin.
Taesha Higbee led Montana Tech with 14 points and a game-high 15 rebounds, but she scored just 2 points over the final 17 minutes. Joining Higbee in double figures were Jenessa Todd (13 points) and Lindsie Wilson (10 points). Montana Tech finished with 21 turnovers to Azusa Pacific’s 12, negating at least part of the Orediggers’ 49-43 rebounding edge.
With the win, Azusa Pacific improves to 26-6 on the year, while Montana Tech wraps up its year with a 19-10 overall mark. The Cougars’ win total matches the program’s best single-season tally as a Golden State Athletic Conference member, joining the 26-win 1999-2000 squad as the winningest Azusa Pacific team since a 30-5 1986 campaign.