JACKSON, Tenn. -- The NAIA’s No. 2-ranked Azusa Pacific overcame a 9-point halftime deficit by hitting 6-of-7 from 3-point range over the final 10 minutes in an 81-72 win over No. 9-ranked Freed-Hardeman (Tenn.) on the opening day of the prestigious Jackson (Tenn.) Rotary Classic.
Junior point guard Briana Hall led the way, scoring 16 points and hitting 3-of-5 from long range. Hall buried 2 crucial treys and a pair of free throws that gave the Cougars the lead for good, part of a 23-10 run over the final 10:04.
Senior forward Alex Moore-Porter scored a team-high 17 points and grabbed 6 rebounds to share the team rebounding lead with senior center Kristie Hala’ufia, who posted 12 points on 6-of-8 shooting to go with 6 boards. Juniors Amber Williams and Eboni Sadler tallied 10 points apiece to give Azusa Pacific 5 players in double figures, and senior guard C.J. Hill added 9 points, all on 3-pointers.
The Cougars’ balance contrasted with the combined effort of 45 points and 20 rebounds from the Freed-Hardeman duo of Natalie Shumpert and Meribeth Boehler, who also tossed up 31 of the Lady Lions’ 54 shots.
A pair of Boehler free throws with 1 minute left in the opening half capped a 15-4 run that gave Freed-Hardeman its largest lead of the game, a 10-point cushion at 42-32. Shumpert scored in the final minute to answer a Hall 3-pointer and send the Lady Lions into halftime with a comfortable 44-35 advantage.
Hala’ufia played just 2 minutes in the first half, picking up a pair of early fouls that brought Williams off the Cougar bench earlier than anticipated. Williams, too, was hit with 2 first-half fouls, and also didn’t play the final 8 minutes of the half.
“As much as we are an inside-out team, all our bigs were in foul trouble so we had to alter our game a little bit,” said Cougar head coach T.J. Hardeman. “In the second half, we did a much better job of staying out of foul trouble, and once we got going we did a lot of nice things. We just want to keep coming at you inside, and hopefully that will tire teams out a little bit.”
Hala’ufia, Moore-Porter and Williams combined for the Cougars’ first 18 points in the second half. A Hala’ufia basket with 12:21 left gave Azusa Pacific a 53-52 lead, its first since a 1-point first-half edge. Freed-Hardeman scored 5 straight to regain the lead, but the Cougars’ dominance in the paint opened up the outside looks for shooters like Hill, who knocked down a 3-pointer that cut the lead to 57-56 with 10:04 to play.
“We needed to do a better job of running our offense,” Hardeman said. “We shot too many threes in the first half, when we really needed to establish the inside game before we started looking to the outside.”
After Freed-Hardeman pushed the lead back to 62-58 on a Hannah Parsley 3-pointer, Hala’ufia scored the first basket in a 10-2 run that gave Azusa Pacific the lead for good. Hall followed Hala’ufia’s bucket inside with another 3-point bomb, and she followed a Sadler two with another triple to give the Cougars a 68-64 lead with 6:08 left in the game.
Sadler, Moore-Porter and Byrd each hit 3-pointers in the final 3 minutes to help Azusa Pacific post a 46-28 second-half scoring margin and extend the lead out to the final 9-point margin of victory.
The Rotary Classic features last season’s NAIA title game participants Azusa Pacific and Union (Tenn.), which highlights a 6-team field that includes 5 Top 10-ranked teams along with No. 19-ranked Bethel (Tenn.). The Cougars take on top-ranked Union Friday night in a rematch of last year’s championship game before closing out the 3-day event against Bethel.
“I think our team is excited for the challenge of playing Union,” Hardeman said. “This is probably the only game all year where we’ll be the underdog, so we should enjoy that role. We’ve got nothing to lose, and it will be a fun challenge to play them on their home floor.”
With the win, Azusa Pacific improves to 3-0 on the season, while Freed-Hardeman suffers its first loss after a season-opening 4-game win streak.