AZUSA, Calif. -- The NAIA’s No. 3-ranked Azusa Pacific closed out the regular season with a 78-58 win over San Diego Christian, getting over 80 percent of its scoring from a starting lineup composed of all 5 members of the Cougars’ senior class.
Kristie Hala’ufia and Alex Moore-Porter led the way, with Moore-Porter hitting 12-of-15 shots en route to a game-high 28 points while Hala’ufia dominated the paint with a 19-point, 14-rebound double-double that pushed her into third on Azusa Pacific’s career rebounding list. Guards Jessica Raber, C.J. Hill, and Michelle Byrd scored 6 points apiece, with the trio combining to dish out 12 of the Cougars’ 22 assists.
“Starting with the other seniors was the most emotional side of tonight, because it brought me back to the beginning of when I first got here,” Moore-Porter said. “It was a team effort to get a win tonight, and it seemed right. People had certain plays for them that they made, and it made it a perfect night for a senior night.”
Azusa Pacific went on a 22-5 run over a 7-and-a-half minute stretch early in the second half to turn a 1-point edge into a commanding 61-43 lead with 10 minutes left in the game. The closest San Diego Christian got after that was 14 points, pulling to within 65-51 with 7:49 to play, but Raber got a layup and a steal that sparked an 11-2 burst. The 2-and-a-half minute run included a trey from Hala’ufia, which she banked in off the backboard, and it pushed the lead to 76-53 with 5:03 left.
“Tonight was pretty special,” Hala’ufia said. “It was emotional for all 5 of us. Our juniors did a great job supporting us on our senior night, and tonight was fun for us because we played as a team. It was definitely special to be out there together with the other 4 girls that will be leaving after this season.”
The Cougars scored just 2 points the rest of the way, a Hala’ufia layup that pushed Azusa Pacific’s scoring in the paint to 42 points, but they also held San Diego Christian to only 5 points in the final 5 minutes, as well, with 3 of them coming with just 17 ticks on the clock.
In addition to a 42-16 paint scoring advantage, Azusa Pacific posted a 17-7 margin in points off turnovers, committing only 3 turnovers in the second half. The Cougars also won the rebounding battle, 42-30, thanks in part to a 26-11 first-half edge on the boards, and registered a 19-12 advantage in second chance points.
“Four of the five seniors have been here all 4 years, and Alex has been here 3 years, and it’s awesome for the program to be able to put them out in front tonight,” Cougar head coach T.J. Hardeman said. “These are the people that have been the heart of the program, guided us, and set the tone for getting us to where we are. They’ve won back-to-back GSAC championships and gotten to a national title game, and you don’t get that without leadership. Our seniors have provided that leadership, so we really talked about trying to honor them with hard play, being intense, and playing as a team. Those are the things that have really characterized our program, so it was neat to see them do that tonight.”
All 5 Cougar seniors played between 27 and 33 minutes, and junior guard Eboni Sadler contributed 7 points and 4 steals in just 12 minutes of action to lead the Cougar reserves, who were content to showcase the senior group after clinching sole possession of the GSAC title earlier this week with a road win at The Master’s.
“What I appreciate about the seniors is their ability to do whatever it takes to win, their willingness to do whatever we ask as coaches and fill whatever roles there are,” Hardeman said. “They’ve all played different roles throughout their careers, but they’ve worked hard and supported each other, their coaches, and their team. They really are a class group that models what we want everyone else to follow.”
San Diego Christian jumped out to a 10-2 lead to start the game, and the Hawks’ Heather Serven hit a 3-pointer just over 4 minutes into the game to put the Hawks in front, 17-10. However, that was San Diego Christian went scoreless for over 6 minutes, allowing Azusa Pacific to take the lead at 19-17 with a 9-0 run that was capped by back-to-back Sadler baskets. The lead changed hands 6 more times in the opening half, with a Hall layup in the final minute breaking a tie game to give the Cougars a 35-33 halftime advantage.
San Diego Christian was led by Serven’s 16 points, and Melissa Villalobos added 15 points for the Hawks, whose leading rebounder was Jermani Daniels with 6 rebounds off the bench. Serven hit three 3-pointers in the first half, part of a 42 percent (5-for-12) effort from long range in the first half, but San Diego Christian was just 32 percent (9-for-28) from the field after halftime and just 1-of-8 from 3-point range in the second half.
With the win, which extends Azusa Pacific’s program-record GSAC winning streak to 15 games, the Cougars wrap up the regular season with a 26-4 overall record and finish the conference campaign at 18-2 with a 2-game margin over the tied second-place finishers, Biola and California Baptist.
The GSAC regular-season title also gives Azusa Pacific home-court advantage throughout the GSAC Postseason Tournament, which begins with a 7:30 p.m. matchup with Point Loma Nazarene on Wednesday, March 2.
“We haven’t been real successful in the GSAC Tournament, and I told the seniors their record and mine is the same,” Hardeman said. “We’re 1-3 over the last 3 years, so we’d like to turn that around. It’s not so much that we have to win games, we just want to get to where we’re playing our best basketball and have confidence in what we can do. We know what we do well and we do those things, and that’s a mark of a good team.”
San Diego Christian’s season ends at 8-20 overall, 3-17 GSAC.