JACKSON, Tenn. -- Azusa Pacific proved it finished the season right where it deserved, giving defending national champion Union (Tenn.) University all it could handle in the 2010 NAIA championship game, but Union (Tenn.) successfully defended its national crown with a 73-65 win over the Cougars Tuesday night at Oman Arena.
The disappointment, vivid and searing in the present, will soon fade as the heights which this Cougar squad reached will soon become the root of future legend. Azusa Pacific was 1 win away from tying the program’s single-season win record, and it posted 4 straight wins into the title game of a tournament at which it had never won back-to-back games. However, it was that stinging disappointment Azusa Pacific used as motivation for this year’s tournament run, a quest to erase the bitter taste of feeling as though a deep tournament run was stolen away a year ago in a narrow second-round defeat to Lambuth.
“We just talked with the players right now about the journey, and how you can’t just focus on the end result,” Cougar head coach T.J. Hardeman said. “It’s each step along the journey, and we made some awesome steps. It didn’t end exactly the way we wanted it, but it did end and it was going to end tonight regardless.
Azusa Pacific, the 2010 Golden State Athletic Conference regular-season champion, had the defending national champs right where they wanted them heading into the final 10 minutes, pulling to within a point at 50-49 on junior center Kristie Hala’ufia’s catch-and-shoot layup deep in the post with exactly 11 minutes left in the game. However, Union juniors Zeinab Chan and Kayla Hudson drew from their wealth of postseason experience to put together a quick 10-0 run that gave Union all the separation it needed to complete the back-to-back national titles.
“Our first goal was to be league champions, which we did for the first time since 2002,” said Hardeman, “and our other goal was to win the national championship, and I thought we were going to. We got awfully close but we didn’t quite make it. Obviously tonight, we’re disappointed with the final ending, but we’ll get over it.”
Hala’ufia and Chan, 2 of the NAIA’s premier post players, seemingly scored at will against each other, each tallying a game-high 20 points in an impressive clinic of low-post offense. However, after Hala’ufia got her team back to within a point, Chan answered with scores on back-to-back possessions, first a drive across the lane around Hala’ufia for a pair that was followed by an easy finish under the hoop when the Cougar defense doubled the drive of Kaitlin Dudley, Union’s all-time leading scorer.
From there, it was back-to-back 3-point bombs from the right wing from Hudson, a junior point guard, that pushed Union’s lead to 60-49 with 7:42 remaining in the game. The Cougars got as close as 5 points 3 times in the final 90 seconds, but a poised Union squad put the game out of reach with veteran savvy in crunch time. Junior guard C.J. Hill’s 3-ball from the top of the key with 1:30 to go cut Union’s lead to 66-61, but with the shot clock running down on the ensuing Lady Bulldog possession, Dudley spun inside the free throw line for an 8-foot jumper that pushed the margin back to 68-61 with just under a minute to play.
“People say this is the hardest tournament to win because it’s 5 games in 6 days,” Hardeman said. “As a team, we just got outworked on the boards tonight, and that really doesn’t happen to us very much. I have to think that a little bit of that had to do with us having some dead legs. They’re a very good team, and there’s no shame at all in losing to them. We told our team to hold their heads high.”
Junior forward Alex Moore-Porter quickly drilled a jumper from the left elbow to close the gap to 68-63. But with just 46 seconds remaining, Azusa Pacific needed to foul 3 times just to get its second-half foul total to the 7 that would put Union at the free throw line for the one-and-one. After 2 Cougar fouls, Union went for the kill, leading Lavanda Ross with the inbounds pass for a fast-break layup behind the Azusa Pacific defense with just 28 seconds left that made it 70-63. After junior guard Michelle Byrd knocked down a pair of free throws with 21 seconds remaining, Hudson hit a crucial pair from the line with 19.3 seconds remaining, and a 3-point miss for the Cougars essentially ended the comeback bid.
A rare rebounding lapse from an Azusa Pacific squad that outrebounded opponents by an average of 5.5 per game during the year helped allow Union to overcome its first-half shooting struggles with an 18-8 margin in second chance points. Union grabbed 19 offensive rebounds en route to a 41-26 overall rebound margin, and the Cougars never led by more than a bucket in a game that had 11 ties and 8 lead changes.
“It’s incredibly valuable, because I think people understand it feels awesome it is to be here,” Hardeman said. “If you’ve never had sugar before, you don’t know what you’re missing. Likewise, if you’ve never been to a Final Four and won a game, you don’t know all the feelings and the elation and the joy. It’s an awesome feeling, and I hope our players get addicted to that.”
Hala’ufia and Chan led all scorers with 20 points, and Chan pulled down 10 rebounds for the Lady Bulldogs. Both teams had 4 players reach double figures, with Moore-Porter tallying 13 points and a team-high 6 rebounds for the Cougars. Byrd tied for the Cougars’ rebounding lead with 6 boards that included 4 offensive rebounds, and she scored 10 points to hit double-digits for the first time since November. Hill hit 2-of-6 treys, giving her at least 1 3-point make for 11 straight games, and she finished with 10 points and 4 assists.
Azusa Pacific, which entered the game with 4 NAIA Tournament wins despite shooting less than 40 percent in each of those 4 victories, hit 14-of-25 (.560) from the field in the first half and went into the break tied at 33-33 behind the strength of 8 points on 4-of-4 shooting from Hala’ufia in the opening stanza. After surrendering 7 straight points to start the second half, the Cougars rallied with a 14-5 run capped by Byrd’s 3-pointer to take their last lead of the game at 47-45 with 13:10 to play. Dudley answered with a game-tying 18-foot baseline jumper that tied the game at 47-47 with just under 12 minutes to play. Hudson broke the tie for good, hitting her first of 3 second-half treys from the right wing, the same vicinity where she would later hit back-to-back 3-pointers.
Hudson scored 14 to go with Chan’s 20, and Lavanda Ross tossed in another 14 points. Jessica Graves scored 10 points and also had 5 rebounds and 4 assists, and Ashley Lillard did all of her damage in the opening half by tallying all 8 of her points and 11 off the bench late in the opening period.
Union’s NAIA championship is its fifth overall and is the Lady Bulldogs’ fourth in the past 6 seasons. With its run to the finals, Azusa Pacific improves to 8-13 all-time in NAIA Tournament play.