JACKSON, Tenn. -- Those who came to watch beautiful offensive basketball got what they wanted in the primetime game when top-seeded Union (Tenn.) shot over 50 percent in its second-round win over Southern Polytechnic State (Ga.). Those who stuck around for the late-night tipoff between Azusa Pacific and Freed-Hardeman (Tenn.) got the opposite, as the second-seeded Cougars scrapped their way to a 59-53 win over the Lady Lions to conclude the second round of play Friday night at the 2010 NAIA Women’s Basketball National Championship.
More importantly, the final score lifted the Cougars into the NAIA quarterfinals for just the second time ever, and its first appearance there since the NAIA’s first championship tournament in 1981. That year, Azusa Pacific was part of an 8-team field and lost in the semifinals, making this year’s squad the first Cougar team ever to win back-to-back games at the national tournament.
“Our goal was to win our league, which we did, but then it was to come back here and win the national championship,” Cougar head coach T.J. Hardeman said. “You can only do that one game at a time, and I think as a team we felt a lot of pressure to win the first game. Tonight we were a little more relaxed and confident, and I expect tomorrow will be very similar.”
A year ago, Azusa Pacific surrendered a 3-point lead in the final 2 minutes in a gut-wrenching 73-70 loss in the second round to eventual national runner-up Lambuth (Tenn.).
“I think it speaks a lot for having this whole team here last year, and losing in this game when we were so close to winning,” Hardeman said. “You learn from that – it took a whole year, but that loss last year helped us understand what we need to do to finish.”
Junior guard C.J. Hill led the way for Azusa Pacific in the scoring column with 17 points, but Friday’s victory was a product every ounce of effort that isn’t reflected on the stat sheet. The Cougars didn’t shoot a single free throw in the opening half yet led 31-26. They shot 43 percent (6-for-14) from the line and were outrebounded by 7 in the second half, were outscored in points off turnovers (18-11), second-chance points (21-11) and were dead even in points in the paint at 36 each.
What Azusa Pacific did bring to its second-round matchup was a level of defensive intensity from the outset that Freed-Hardeman was never able to match. After Jana Cross scored 14 points and pulled down 6 rebounds against the Cougar frontline in the first half, she was denied the ball and took just 3 shots in the second half. The Lady Lions’ long-range game could never make Azusa Pacific pay, missing 15 straight 3-pointers before Tara Deatheridge hit Freed-Hardeman’s lone trey of the game with just 2:10 remaining in the game.
“Being active is the key,” Hardeman said. “If we’re not active, our zone is terrible but if we’re active, it’s good. We knew where they were going to be and had people with their hands up on them, so I don’t know how many wide open looks they actually had.”
The numbers weren’t pretty, with sophomore point guard Briana Hall going 0-for-3 at the charity stripe in an 11-point, 4-assist effort, and junior forward Alex Moore-Porter joining her with 11 points on a 4-of-13 night from the field. Perhaps the best statistical line of the night went to junior guard Michelle Byrd, who scored 9 points, including a 3-pointer, with 5 rebounds (3 offensive), no turnovers and 3 steals.
“It’s not pretty, but it’s what we are,” Hardeman said. “We’re big, we’re strong, and I thought we had the quickest guards on the floor. When you have quick guards and good strong bigs, that’s a tough combination for anybody to handle.”
Azusa Pacific’s frontcourt trio of Moore-Porter, junior center Kristie Hala’ufia and sophomore center Amber Williams combined for 23 of the Cougars’ 41 rebounds, while Freed-Hardeman posts Cross and Boehler collected 9 boards each.
“Meribeth Boehler and Jana Cross are 2 excellent posts,” Hardeman said. “You’re not going to play against better posts. They outrebounded us tonight, but sometimes we were able to put 3 bigs on the court and they never really had that option.”
Freed-Hardeman took its only lead of the game less than 5 minutes into the contest, capitalizing on back-to-back Azusa Pacific turnovers for a Cross bucket in the paint for an 8-6 lead. Two minutes later, a pair of Cross free throws tied the game at 12-12 before the Cougars opened up an 8-point lead on Hall’s 3-pointer that capped a 10-2 run. Cross and Boehler scored on consecutive Lady Lions possessions to cut the lead to 24-22 with 3:29 left in the period, but Byrd drained a trey that helped the Cougars go into halftime with a 31-26 advantage.
Another 10-2 run early in the second half gave Azusa Pacific its first double-digit lead, with a Hill 3-pointer pushing the lead to 48-36 with 9:14 remaining. Freed-Hardeman got back to within 5 on Deatheridge’s 3-pointer with 2:10 left, but Moore-Porter put back a Hall miss in the lane to expand the cushion to 56-49 with 1:54 to play. The closest Freed-Hardeman got was within 4 points at 57-53 in the final minute, but Hill made 1-of-2 at the line and Byrd nailed a pair late for the final 59-53 margin.
The victory pushes Azusa Pacific’s overall record to 27-6, the second-highest single-season win total in program history, while Freed-Hardeman’s campaign ends with a final record of 27-7. The Cougars move on to the quarterfinal round, where they will meet up with No. 1-seed Saint Xavier (Ill.) University, which improved to 31-1 with a 71-67 second-round win over University of the Cumberlands (Ky.) Friday evening.