AZUSA, Calif. -- Senior guard Michelle Byrd drilled 5 3-pointers and scored a career-high 22 points to lead the NAIA’s No. 4-ranked Azusa Pacific to an 82-70 win over No. 5 California Baptist and with the win, sole possession of the Golden State Athletic Conference lead with 5 conference games remaining.
Byrd was 5-of-6 from 3-point range, including 4 first-half treys, and she was the Cougars’ defensive leader in shutting down the Lancers’ V.V. Vasciunaite, who scored 19 and also hit 5 3-pointers in the game but was limited to just 3 points after halftime.
“This win was huge for us, and I knew how excited we all were just by feeling our energy during warm-ups,” Byrd said. I wanted to win, and I knew how badly my teammates wanted to win, and I didn’t want to let them down.”
Those 3 points came on Vasciunaite’s fifth trey, which gave California Baptist a 54-53 lead with 13:45 to play, but Byrd had a pair of her game-high 5 steals that sparked Azusa Pacific to a 12-0 run over the next 4 minutes that gave the Cougars a double-digit lead at 65-54 with just under 9 minutes left.
“I was trying to make sure we all stayed calm and knew we were still in the game.” Byrd said. “(Their lead) was just 1 point, and I felt like we could easily go down and score or get it back on defense. We lost by 1 point at the buzzer the last time we played them, and that hurt. We didn’t want the same outcome, and we prepared extremely hard for this game.”
Byrd answered an S.J. Simmons 3-pointer with a trey of her own, her fifth of the contest, and junior center Amber Williams’ layup after a Vasciunaite turnover pushed the lead to 70-57 with 7:42 remaining. Simmons scored the next 7 points to slash the lead to 6 points, 70-64, with 5 minutes to play. However, the Lancers got only 1 more shot attempt in the next 3 minutes, a missed 3-pointer, as junior guard Eboni Sadler and Byrd scored consecutive baskets that got the lead back into double figures heading into the final 2 minutes.
“The only thing Michelle didn’t do tonight was guard the post,” Hardeman said. “We had her guard everyone else, we had her play the point, and we had her shooting the three. She handled it all very well and provided a lot of good things for us.”
Azusa Pacific pulled down 20 offensive rebounds and controlled the boards with a 37-29 margin on the glass, and the Cougars forced 23 Lancer turnovers that led to a 25-13 edge in points off turnovers. Sadler finished with 18 points and pulled 6 of her 9 rebounds down from the offensive boards. Senior forward Alex Moore-Porter and junior point guard Briana Hall added 16 points each, and Hall also contributed a game-high 5 assists and 4 steals for the Cougars.
Vasciunaite and Simmons tallied 19 apiece for California Baptist, which has dropped back-to-back games for the first time all year and falls to 19-6 overall with a 12-3 GSAC mark. Olsen, who hit the game-winner in the closing seconds and scored 16 in the first matchup with Azusa Pacific, finished with 14 points and a team-high 8 rebounds.
“That loss to California Baptist woke us up a little bit,” Hardeman said. “They got us when we didn’t convert at the end, and we are supposed to be a veteran team. Most of our team has been to the national tournament 3 years, and we’ve talked about playing in big games and what it takes to win games like that. It took us a while to get used to the roles that people have, but we’re starting to understand everybody’s roles in how to make us successful.”
The Cougars took a 3-point lead into halftime, 46-43, after an opening period in which both teams hit 7 3-pointers and shot over 50 percent from 3-point range. After Brenna Hahn hit 1 of her 2 first-half treys to give the Lancers a 27-24 lead, Hall and Byrd each hit a pair of threes during a 17-6 run that pushed the Cougars back in front for its largest first-half lead, 41-33, with just over 3 minutes left in the half.
Another Hahn trey served as the catalyst of a 10-2 run that tied the game at 43-43 in the final minute of the half, but Byrd swished another triple, her fourth of the half, in the closing seconds to send Azusa Pacific into the break with the 3-point lead.
“This game had a lot of significance, because whoever won the game tonight had the lead,” Hardeman said. “We felt like it was up to us to protect our home court. We have some huge games coming up, but we wanted to be the team with the upper hand going down the stretch.”
With the win, the Cougars improve to 21-4 overall, 13-2 GSAC, and they’ll take their season-long 10-game winning streak on the road on Saturday to No. 21 Westmont, which has won 4 in a row including impressive wins over California Baptist and Vanguard.