JACKSON, Tenn. -- Not much separated Azusa Pacific and Saint Xavier in Saturday’s NAIA quarterfinal matchup between 2 schools with a common Cougar mascot, but California’s second-seeded Cougars outlasted their top-seeded Chicago counterparts, posting a 73-69 victory in Saturday’s quarterfinals to advance to the program’s first appearance in the NAIA “Fab Four” since 1981.
Azusa Pacific, now 28-6 on the season, will face another “Fab Four” newcomer in Lee (Tenn.) University, a No. 3-seed that also knocked off its bracketed quarter’s top-seed Vanguard Saturday. The teams will play in Monday’s 8 p.m. semifinal at Jackson, Tennessee’s Oman Arena. Both No. 1 seeds on the opposite side of the bracket advanced to Monday’s 6 p.m. matchup that pits defending NAIA champion Union (Tenn.) University, winner of 4 NAIA women’s basketball championships in the past 12 years, against Oklahoma City University, which won 4 straight NAIA titles from 1999-2002.
“Being here last year and seeing that this was a possibility allowed them to dream,” Cougar head coach T.J. Hardeman said. “We used to joke that we wanted to go to church in Jackson, which means we’re still here to go to church on Sunday and come back and play on Monday and Tuesday. When you have a chance to dream like that, it’s exciting, and we’ve worked very hard to get here.”
Neither team led by more than 4 points in the entire second half, exchanging the lead 16 times with 10 tie scores in the final 20 minutes, but the ultimate difference was Azusa Pacific’s bruising frontline of junior forward Alex Moore-Porter and junior center Kristie Hala’ufia. The pair combined for 41 points and 26 rebounds, leading their team to a 48-40 rebounding margin that included 22 offensive boards. In addition, just 1 night after getting to the line just 14 times and shooting a paltry 43 percent (6-for-14) in a second-round win over Freed-Hardeman, Azusa Pacific salted Saturday’s game away with a 74 percent (25-for-34) effort from the charity stripe.
“When you look at big games, it seems like they’re won on the free throw line, and you don’t get to the free throw line unless you go inside,” Hardeman said. “We’ve got a pretty good group to go inside with, so we just continued to pound it inside. When you keep going there, you’re eventually going to get some calls.”
Moore-Porter had a halftime double-double of 17 points and 10 rebounds that helped Azusa Pacific to a 35-32 halftime lead. She finished with 28 points and a career-high 16 rebounds, while Hala’ufia totaled 13 points and 10 boards for the Cougars. Saint Xavier was led by McClain’s team-high 23 points, and Hannemann registered a double-double with 18 points and 14 rebounds.
Azusa Pacific managed to survive a nightmarish opening scoreless stretch that lasted more than 5 minutes, eventually clawing back from a 9-point deficit at 15-6 with 10 straight points to take its first lead of the game at 16-15 with 8:43 remaining in the first half. Moore-Porter opened the run with a conventional 3-point play, and Hala’ufia finished it with a layup deep in the paint.
“We talk a lot about looking out the windshield and not looking at the rearview mirror, just focusing on what we can control,” Hardeman said. “We both forced each other out of some of the things we wanted to do early, and once the game started to go we started to figure out exactly where we needed to go and what we needed to do. To impose your will takes desire and discipline by the team.”
For the next 23 minutes, neither team led by more than 3 points and the lead changed hands 20 more times before the game’s conclusion. With 5:15 to play, Saint Xavier took the first lead of more than 3 points since the first half, taking a 65-61 lead on an Erin Hannemann bucket. Azusa Pacific’s Michelle Byrd answered with a 3-point play, and Moore-Porter knocked down the front end of a pair of free throws to knot the game at 65-all with 4 minutes left after Marquita Smith, Saint Xavier’s only listed center, fouled out. A pair of Marissa Young free throws gave Saint Xavier its final lead of the game, 67-65 with 3:35 remaining, but with one fewer inside defender to deal with due to Smith’s foulout, Hala'ufia tied it on the ensuing possession with yet another inside bucket.
“We kept exchanging baskets, and as long as the point spread wasn’t that far we thought we could keep up with them,” Hala’ufia said. “In close games like that, you just have to keep your composure. We have a lot of trust with each other, and we’ve been together for so long, that trust just keeps building.”
Junior guard C.J. Hill picked Alex Barone for a steal on Saint Xavier’s next trip down the floor, setting up sophomore point guard Briana Hall for the first of 2 trips to the free throw line in the final 3 minutes. Hall was fouled both times by senior guard Kathlyn McClain, Saint Xavier’s top outside shooting threat, resulting in McClain’s fifth foul with 1:34 to play, and Hall made 1-of-2 from the line for a 71-69 margin.
Moore-Porter rebounded a Hannemann miss at the other end before a Hall steal in the final 30 seconds forced Saint Xavier to foul Hill, who drilled both free throws to make it a 2-possession game with 24 seconds to play. Saint Xavier was off the mark with 4 shots in the closing seconds, and Moore-Porter sealed the victory by pulling down the last miss for her career-high 16th board just before time expired.
“I felt pretty good that we were controlling the boards,” Hardeman said. “Late in the game, whoever controls the boards is probably going to win the game, so I felt like we had a big lineup out there that could do that.”
Although the semifinals appearance counts as the second in Azusa Pacific’s history, it is the first time the Cougars have ever won more than 1 game at the NAIA national tournament. The 1981 championship was the first women’s basketball championship tournament in NAIA history, and Azusa Pacific won its opening game of the 8-team tournament before suffering a semifinal loss to Kentucky State and dropping the third-place game that year to Northern State (S.D.). The NAIA’s women’s basketball championship format expanded to 16 teams in 1984 before entering into the 32-team era of the championship format in 1991.