FULLERTON, Calif. -- Azusa Pacific could definitely get used to this.
The NAIA’s No. 3-ranked Cougars clinched a share of their second straight Golden State Athletic Conference title Saturday night in Fullerton with an 82-62 win over Hope International. The victory was memorable for several reasons, as it extended their winning streak to 13 games to set the program record for longest GSAC winning streak, while giving head coach T.J. Hardeman his 100th win as Azusa Pacific's head coach.
“Anytime you set high expectations, you have to really work hard to meet those,” said Hardeman, whose 7-year collegiate coaching record of 138-88 includes a 100-30 mark in 4 seasons at Azusa Pacific. “I’m really proud of the girls for having those high expectations and working so hard to meet them. It’s a good feeling when you have a goal and can reach it, and when you do it as a group it makes it a very special feeling.”
An early 12-4 run that featured 3-pointers from junior guard Eboni Sadler and senior forward Alex Moore-Porter pushed the Cougars out to an early 14-6 lead. Later in the half, 5 different players scored in a 12-2 run that gave Azusa Pacific a 34-18 lead with 5:43 to play in the first half.
Moore-Porter and senior guard Michelle Byrd combined for 19 points in the opening half, and they each finished with a team-high 15 points for the Cougars, who had 13 of their 16 players register in the scoring column. Sadler hit her first 4 shots of the game and scored 9 of her 11 in the first half to help Azusa Pacific to a 42-26 halftime lead.
The Cougars led by double figures for the final 27:39 of the game, save for a 90-second stretch when Hope International briefly cut the margin to 7 points at 45-38 with 16:19 left in the game. Senior guard C.J. Hill and junior guard Cherie Hughes combined for 6 straight points, sparking a 17-4 run that gave Azusa Pacific a 62-42 lead, its first 20-point margin, with 11 minutes remaining. The Cougars led by at least 14 points the rest of the way and led by a game-high 22-point spread twice in the second half.
While the Cougars have clinched a share of the title by taking a 2-game lead over second-place Biola and California Baptist into the final 2 games of the regular season, Azusa Pacific needs 1 more win in the final week of GSAC play to ensure the program’s sixth GSAC title will not be a shared crown as it was a year ago when Azusa Pacific and Vanguard were conference co-champions.
“Winning the league was one of our main goals, so there is a feeling of accomplishment,” Hardeman said, “but we don’t feel like it’s done yet with 2 games to go. We’d like to claim that for ourselves.”
Last year, the Cougars’ final 6 games of GSAC play had only 1 victory by more than 10 points, and it included an overtime win and a 25-point loss on the road at Vanguard. During the current 13-game win streak that takes Azusa Pacific into the final week of the regular season, the Cougars have scored at least 80 points 9 times and won by double-digits 10 times, including 6 victories by 20 points or more.
Azusa Pacific’s depth accounted for a 27-2 edge in bench scoring, with junior center Amber Williams leading the way by coming within a point of a double-double with a 9-point, 10-rebound performance. Hill dished out 2 assists, pushing her past 400 career assists and making her 1 of 5 players in Azusa Pacific history with 1,000 career points and 400 assists. Ten Cougar reserves saw at least 5 minutes of game action, and guards Jessica Raber and Cara Bomar each hit second-half 3-pointers.
“We knew we were going to get people in and out of the game,” Hardeman said. “Hope International still battled hard, which we expected, but we knew we’d be able to wear them down. We felt pretty confident that we could sustain a fast tempo, because we rotated more people through. We want to press our advantage and press the tempo, but we feel like we can play comfortably with any style.”
Azusa Pacific improves to 24-4 overall, 16-2 GSAC, while Hope International fell to 12-16 overall and 4-14 in GSAC play. Saturday’s result eliminated Hope from GSAC Tournament consideration, as the Royals are 3 games out of 8th place in the league standings.
The Cougars visit The Master’s College at 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 22, before hosting San Diego Christian in the Saturday, Feb. 26 regular-season finale. Azusa Pacific will kick off postseason play when it hosts a GSAC Tournament first-round game on Wednesday, March 2.