JACKSON, Tenn. -- Keep all hands and feet inside the vehicle with seat belt fastened at all times, because Azusa Pacific’s journey to the NAIA championship is full of bumps and turns at every corner. The Cougars advanced to the NAIA title game for the first time in program history with a 64-60 win over Lee (Tenn.) University at Oman Arena Monday night, and for the fourth time in as many games in this tournament they did it by coming from behind.
Azusa Pacific, which has yet to shoot over 40 percent from the field in any of its 4 wins at the tournament, meets the overall top seed and the top field goal shooting team of the tournament, 4-time NAIA champion Union (Tenn.) University. Tuesday’s championship game is scheduled to tip off at 9 p.m. Central time and will be televised on live national cable television via the CBS College Sports network.
“Last year, we left this tournament looking at the final saying that could be us,” Cougar head coach T.J. Hardeman said. “Everyone is that ‘could be,’ but when you turn around and say ‘this is us,’ it’s a little bit more shocking. You’re not dreaming about stuff – this is reality. The first thing we asked in the locker room after tonight’s game was if they were satisfied, and the answer was absolutely not. If you‘re going to win a national title, you want to beat the best. We have the opportunity to do that.”
The Cougars’ bumpy tournament road was smoothed by 5 players reaching double figures, and they dominated the boards to the tune of a 46-32 rebounding advantage that led to a 17-4 margin in second-chance points.
Junior forward Alex Moore-Porter was Azusa Pacific’s leading scorer with a 14-point, 10-rebound double-double, and junior center Kristie Hala’ufia added another double-double with 13 points and 10 boards. Junior guard C.J. Hill scored 13 points, and sophomore point guard Briana Hall added 12, with each hitting 2-of-3 treys. Sophomore center Amber Williams provided 10 point and 6 rebounds in 21 minutes of work off the bench.
“I’m very proud of our girls and thankful that our coaches pushed us this far,” Hala’ufia said. “Now it’s in our hands, and we can do what we want with it. We have worked hard all year, and I wouldn’t want any other group of girls to go out to battle with.”
Kayce Addison’s 3-point play with 10:37 left gave Lee a 45-41 lead, but Moore-Porter answered with a 3-point play to spark a 13-3 run that ended with back-to-back 3-pointers from Hall. Her treys snapped a 48-48 deadlock and put the Cougars in front for good. Azusa Pacific missed all 4 of its free throws down the final 4-minute stretch, but Hala’ufia gave the Cougars a 6-point cushion at 62-56 with a jumper off the glass after Moore-Porter rebounded a Hall miss from the line with 3:26 to go.
“Late in the game, it gets hard to score points, so you’ve got to dominate the boards,” Hardeman said. “Second-chance points were the key for us.”
Brooke McKinnon hit a pair of free throws with 2:42 to play, and Nelson added another bucket in the paint with 1:35 remaining to pull Lee within 2 points at 62-60 with a minute-and-a-half left. A Moore-Porter steal in the final minute helped set up a Hill bucket with just over 30 seconds left, and Lee had a turnover and 4 missed shots in the final minute to give Azusa Pacific its final 4-point margin of victory.
Junior guard Jessica Raber came in cold off the bench to shoot a pair of free throws for junior guard Michelle Byrd, who was removed from the game after a scratch on her hand began bleeding. Raber calmly drained both, just as she did in a similar situation in the Cougars’ GSAC regular season title-clinching road win at Westmont. Raber’s free throws got the Cougars to within 2 points at 35-33 with 14:29 remaining in the game. Byrd did not score, but she pulled down 9 rebounds in the game.
Azusa Pacific came to an early screeching halt, enduring nearly 5 minutes without a field goal during a 14-1 first-half run after the opening bucket that spotted Lee a 14-3 lead with 14:35 remaining in the opening half. However, Williams scored back-to-back buckets in the paint to cap an 11-2 run that pulled the Cougars to within 16-14 with 9:05 to play. Azusa Pacific twice got as close as 1 point before Lee’s Katie Nelson drilled a 3-pointer with a hand in her face as time expired in the first half, giving the Lady Flames a 28-24 halftime edge.
Moore-Porter hit a trey just over 5 minutes into the second half to tie the game at 31-31, but less than a minute later Julia Zimmerman hit a 3-pointer that pushed Lee’s lead back to 5 points at 38-33 with 14:02 remaining. Consecutive baskets by Moore-Porter and Hala’ufia, and a pair of Hall free throws gave Azusa Pacific a 39-38 edge with 12:02 to play, its first lead since the 2-minute mark of the game.
“We’re definitely not a first-half team, but we never give up,” Hill said. “We kept our poise throughout and just played our game.”
Lee was led by a 20-point performance from Allison Rader, who hit 5-of-9 3-pointers, and Brooke McKinnon added 16 points and 6 rebounds.
With the win, Azusa Pacific is now 29-6 overall heading into Monday’s title tilt with Union. Lee finishes the year with a 31-6 overall record.