LA MIRADA, Calif. -- Less than a week ago, Biola controlled its destiny in the Golden State Athletic Conference title hunt, but the NAIA’s No. 5-ranked Azusa Pacific put a serious dent in the No. 8-ranked Eagles’ title hopes with a 70-50 rout Tuesday night, Biola’s second straight loss at home in La Mirada.
The Cougars never trailed, opening the game with a 9-0 run that ballooned to a 20-point halftime margin, and a full-court pressure defense helped limit Biola to a dismal 5-for-27 (19 percent) effort from the field in the opening 20 minutes. The 15 points allowed in the first half was the lowest scoring half by a Cougar opponent since Azusa Pacific surrendered 15 in the opening half of a 74-51 win at home over St. Ambrose (Iowa) in Dec. 2005.
“We’re starting to play a little bit more like the team we expected to be,” Cougar head coach T.J. Hardeman said. “That’s because we’ve been practicing hard, and we’ve been figuring out what our team persona will be. We’re starting to figure out that if we want to reach our goal of winning the national championship, we have to play defense. That first half was a defensive key for us, and I was definitely pleased with it.”
Senior forward Alex Moore-Porter and junior point guard Briana Hall shared the Cougars’ team scoring lead with 15 points each, and senior guard Michelle Byrd posted her fifth career double-double, and second against Biola, with a 12-point, 10-rebound performance.
“We’re beginning to play team ball,” Byrd said. “We have a lot of great individuals on this team, but we’re pretty tough to stop once we come together and play as a team. Our success the last few weeks has a lot to do with coming together as a team, even off the court, and bringing our unity onto the court.”
Midway through the first half, a 10-0 burst featuring back-to-back 3-point bombs from senior guard C.J. Hill followed by Hall pushed the lead into double-digits at 24-9. The Cougars then paired identical 9-2 runs at the end of the first half and again to start the second, resulting in an overall 18-4 run over a 9-minutes stretch. Moore-Porter drilled a pair of treys to start the second-half run, and junior guard Eboni Sadler’s 3-point play finished it by pushing the lead to 44-17 with 17:32 left in the game.
“We took advantage early in the game by going after loose balls, rebounding, and playing good defense for the full 30-second shot clock,” Byrd said. “I felt like we just had more energy.”
The Cougars kept their lead in the 20s until Jessilyn Conicelli scored all 3 baskets in a 6-0 Biola run that closed the gap to 54-35 with 8:21 to play. Conicelli, who also scored Biola’s only points during Azusa Pacific’s 18-4 run, led all scorers with 19 points, and she grabbed a team-high 10 rebounds to notch her GSAC-best 16th double-double of the season.
“When you play with the right type of urgency, you aren’t checking the score,” Moore-Porter said. “We just take each game as it comes, but we try to keep that level of urgency.”
Conicelli was the only scorer in double figures for the Eagles, who were forced to play at a significant size disadvantage without regular starting center Christina Barclay, who suffered an undisclosed injury while participating in pre-game warm-ups.
Azusa Pacific turned the ball over only 9 times, committing only 3 turnovers while salting the game away in the second half. The Cougars forced 19 Biola turnovers, resulting in a 23-7 edge in points off turnovers.
Moore-Porter was turnover-free and came up with a game-high 3 steals, and Hall added 5 points and 5 rebounds for Azusa Pacific. Hill came off the bench for an 8-point, 2-steal effort, and senior center Kristie Hala’ufia was the Cougars’ fourth double-figure scorer with 11 points and 7 rebounds. Azusa Pacific’s run of 10 consecutive games with a positive rebounding margin came to an end, with Biola edging the Cougars on the boards, 41-38.
“I was a little disappointed that they ended up out-rebounding us because of all the rebounds in the second half, but when the game was decided I felt like we dominated the boards,” Hardeman said. “We knew that’s what we needed to do to win – dominate the boards and get all the loose balls, and that’s what we did initially. Our energy level forced them to take shots they didn’t really want to take, and it helped keep them from getting second chances.”
In the first meeting of the season, Biola also out-rebounded the Cougars, 47-42, running up a 20-point first-half lead before holding off Azusa Pacific for a 66-57 win in December that snapped the Cougars’ 13-game GSAC home winning streak at the Felix Event Center.
“I don’t even know who that team was (in December),” said Moore-Porter, referring to the Cougars’ paltry 33 percent field-goal shooting and 22 turnovers in the Dec. 7 meeting. “Biola made a statement by embarrassing us at our house, and we wanted to make the same statement here.”
With the win, Azusa Pacific improves to 19-4 overall, 11-2 GSAC, and the Cougars bring an 8-game winning streak into a crucial set of back-to-back home games against Point Loma Nazarene (Feb. 5) and GSAC-leading California Baptist (Feb. 8). Biola drops into a tie for third place with Vanguard, falling to 17-5 overall and 9-4 in GSAC play.