AZUSA, Calif. -- Every long-distance journey has milestones along the way, and a pair of individual markers helped the NAIA’s No. 3-ranked Azusa Pacific get one step closer to the Golden State Athletic Conference title with an 84-69 win over No. 13 Vanguard Thursday night.
Junior point guard Briana Hall scored her 1,000th career point midway through the second half, becoming the fourth player on the current team in the Cougars’ 1,000-point club, and senior forward Alex Moore-Porter tied her career-high with a season-best 34 points to put Azusa Pacific within a victory of clinching at least a share of the GSAC regular-season crown for the second straight season.
“We play as a team, and we focus on that over individual stats,” Hall said. “It feels good that I contributed to the team like that, and I hope that I can continue to do well. I feel very fortunate to be at Azusa Pacific, because you rarely find a team that has so many talented players that play team ball without being selfish throughout the season.”
Hall finished with 12 points, plus team-highs of 6 assists and 3 steals, and she hit 1,000 points with a 10-foot jumper in the key that gave the Cougars a 53-38 lead with 10:50 remaining. She becomes 1 of 4 current Cougars with at least 1,000 career points, and she is the 20th player in program history to reach the milestone. Prior to this season, no other team in program history had more than 2 players with at least 1,000 career points.
“Briana is one of those great players that looks to pass first and score second,” Moore-Porter said. “The fact that she’s so effective scoring shows how talented she is. I’m proud of her joining the (1,000-point) club. She’ll only get better, and I’m just looking forward to seeing our team grow and develop over the rest of the season.”
Moore-Porter is 1 of the 4 with 1,000 points, and Azusa Pacific’s leading scorer the past 3 years tied her personal scoring high by hitting 13-of-18 shots, including 3-of-4 from 3-point range, along with 5 free throws for the 34-point total. It was the sixth 30-point game in Moore-Porter’s 3-year Cougar career, her first in the 2010-11 campaign, and it was her fourth time scoring 20 or more this season.
“What makes us a good team is we do have so many weapons, and on any given night it could be anybody that explodes for us,” Hardeman said. “That can be the case for us by calling on someone to score, or to rebound, or to defend, and we have players that are willing to do that and are capable of doing it at a very high level. Tonight, Alex wasn’t forcing shots, she was just open it and feeling it, and she also led us in rebounding. She’s been playing better and better as the year has gone on.”
Azusa Pacific trailed only once in the game, an early 2-point deficit that lasted less than a minute, and the Cougars led by double-digits for all but 18 seconds of the final 26 minutes of the matchup between last year’s GSAC regular-season co-champions.
“We wanted to establish that we legitimately are a first-place team, and I felt like we did that tonight,” Hardeman said. “Each night, we just want to play our best, and that’s who we feel like we’re playing against. We’re trying to get better at what we’re doing regardless of who we play. Every team in our league has capabilities to play well – last year we overlooked Hope and got stung a little bit, so we really are focusing on doing the best we can each time we play.”
Despite going scoreless over the final 4:30 of the first half, Azusa Pacific took a 10-point lead into halftime behind 20 of Moore-Porter’s 34. Moore-Porter hit all 3 of her first-half 3-point attempts, hit her third 3-pointer of the opening half to spark a 7-0 burst, and she capped the run with a bucket with 4:41 left in the half that pushed the lead to 33-17. She then got the Cougars off to a 7-0 burst in the first 2 minutes of the second half for a 40-23 lead, and Azusa Pacific maintained at least a 13-point margin until the final 4 minutes of the game.
“When you make 2 shots in a row from the perimeter, you know you have a rhythm going and you want to try to keep taking quality shots,” Moore-Porter said. “I’ve been making adjustments throughout the season, and I felt like tonight started to show the results of those adjustments.”
The Cougars were out-rebounded for just the second time during their current 12-game winning streak, and they were held to their lowest single-game rebounding total (29) of the past 15 games. Vanguard had 5 more rebounds, but Azusa Pacific shot a season-high 57 percent from the field, hitting 27-of-47 shots including 15-of-23 (65 percent) in the second half.
“That (rebounding margin) wasn’t a huge concern, because I felt like we were getting the big rebounds that we needed,” Hardeman said. “There just weren’t a lot of opportunities for offensive rebounds, which is usually where we get quite a few. We’ll trade just making it on the first shot for those few extra rebounds.”
Vanguard was led by Molly Pfohl’s team-highs of 19 points and 4 rebounds, and Veronica Beavor hit half of the Lions’ 8 3-pointers, going 4-of-7 from long range for 14 points. The defeat dropped the Lions to 15-9 overall, 11-7 GSAC, and the 7 conference defeats are the most for Vanguard since it went 13-7 in 2002 when the GSAC expanded to its current 11-team configuration.
With the win, Azusa Pacific improves to 23-4 overall, 15-2 GSAC, keeping its grip on the conference lead at a 2-game margin over the tied second-place teams, Biola and California Baptist, with 3 games to go in the regular season. Vanguard was the last NAIA-ranked opponent for the Cougars, who have back-to-back road games at Hope International (Feb. 19) and The Master’s (Feb. 22) before wrapping up the regular season at home against San Diego Christian on Saturday, Feb. 26.