AZUSA, Calif. -- For 20 minutes, it looked like Azusa Pacific’s conference tournament struggles of the previous 3 years would carry into another first-round defeat, but the regular-season Golden State Athletic Conference champion Cougars blitzed Point Loma Nazarene in the second half, outscoring the Sea Lions by 30 after halftime in an 88-68 victory in the first round of the GSAC postseason tournament.
Four Azusa Pacific players scored in double figures, led by double-doubles from All-GSAC forward Alex Moore-Porter and All-GSAC guard Briana Hall. Moore-Porter posted game-highs of 23 points and 13 rebounds, tallying 16 points and 8 boards after halftime. Hall scored 8 of her 13 points in the first half to keep the Cougars within striking distance before setting up teammates for easy second-half buckets in a 13-point, 11-assist performance.
The NAIA’s No. 3-ranked Cougars were 1-3 in conference tournament play over the past 3 seasons, suffering first-round defeats at home twice in 3 years, and it appeared they were headed for a familiar fate when they trailed by 10 at the half, 46-36. An uninspired Azusa Pacific defense stood around and watched Point Loma torch the Felix Event Center nets for a 66 percent (19-for-29) shooting clip from the field, including 7-of-9 from 3-point range in the opening half.
“It’s hard to work on intensity because that’s something you just bring,” Cougar head coach T.J. Hardeman said. “It’s not something you can practice. I felt like the stuff we were doing was okay, but the intensity we were doing it with wasn’t what we wanted.”
The second half, however, was a completely different story.
The Cougars forced 11 of Point Loma’s 19 turnovers after halftime while committing only 3 second-half turnovers of their own, taking control of the game with a 13-0 run early in the second half. After trading a pair of baskets in the first 2 minutes of the second half, Azusa Pacific took less than 90 seconds to completely erase Point Loma Nazarene’s 10-point lead, which stood at 50-40 with 18:01 left in the game.
Senior guard Michelle Byrd started the run when she drilled the first of 6 Cougar second-half treys with 17:09 remaining, and junior guard Eboni Sadler capitalized on a turnover for a jumper that cut the lead to 50-45. A Hall steal resulted in a quick 3-pointer from senior guard Jessica Raber from the left wing, and Hall knocked down a pair of free throws to tie the game at 50-50 with 15:46 to play. Raber drilled another 3-pointer with 14:47 remaining to give Azusa Pacific the lead for good and complete the 13-point swing.
“As a team, we weren’t playing like ourselves in the first half,” Sadler said. “We were playing like we had better things to do, and we were complacent. That wasn’t how we wanted to represent ourselves, so we treated the second half like it was a new game. We weren’t ready to be finished playing on our home court yet.”
Crissa Jackson, who scored a team-high 21 points with 7 assists for Point Loma Nazarene, pulled her team to within a point, 59-58, with a 3-pointer midway through the second half, and she hit another triple, her fourth of the game, to keep the Sea Lions within 3 points at 65-62 with 8:18 remaining.
That’s when Azusa Pacific put the game away with a 15-2 run, with Sadler scoring 8 of the Cougars’ points in a run that stretched the margin by another 13 points to 80-64 with 4:15 to play. Point Loma scored just 4 points the rest of the way, hitting 2-of-4 free throws and scoring the other 2 on a Brianna Colon jumper with over 3 minutes left.
“At halftime, I said that I thought we might want to try a little bit harder, and they agreed that we probably should,” Hardeman said. “You could see from the second half that we’re a very strong team, and if they give a good effort, that’s going to be the result. It was frustrating that the effort wasn’t there in the first half, but thankfully the game is 40 minutes and not 20 minutes so we could make up for that.”
Moore-Porter led Azusa Pacific’s second-half onslaught, hitting 8-of-11 from the field for 18 of her 23 second-half points, while Sadler’s second half accounted for 15 of her 19 points. The Cougars shot 61 percent (22-for-36) after halftime, hitting 6-of-8 from 3-point range for 52 second-half points. Byrd finished with 16 points, spreading her scoring evenly across both halves with 8 points in each period.
“We’re a veteran team, which is why I was surprised we started so slow, but it didn’t surprise me that we came after it in the second half,” Hardeman said. “We talk all year about doing what we do best and worrying about us, and we really don’t talk about winning or losing. We talk about doing the things that we’ve practiced, so it was nice to see the team execute that in the second half.”
Byrd and fellow senior C.J. Hill, who hit a 3-pointer and contributed 5 of Azusa Pacific’s 13 bench points, tied the program record for career games played, reaching 133 games with their appearance in Wednesday’s contest. Raber finished with 6 points on her 2 second-half treys that got the Cougar offense rolling.
“We tried to stay positive because we knew we had 20 more minutes to play,” Byrd said. “At halftime, we talked about getting our heads up on defense and just focusing on that part of the game, because we knew if we played great defense our offense would follow.”
Point Loma Nazarene had 3 double-digit scorers in the first half alone, led by Brianna Colon’s 13 points in the opening period. Kiley Berlinski added 12 points on 4-of-5 shooting from 3-point range in the first half, and Jackson scored 12 and was 2-of-3 on 3-pointers in the half. A Berlinski trey and Colon layup capped a 14-4 first-half run that gave Point Loma a 13-point lead, 23-10, its largest of the game, and Colon scored the first 5 points of a 7-0 run late in the period that gave Point Loma a 46-34 edge with 2 minutes left in the first half. Hall scored in the closing seconds of the half for Azusa Pacific, cutting the halftime deficit to 46-36.
Jackson was limited to 9 second-half points, finishing with 21, while Berlinski and Colon were held to a combined 8 points after halftime. Berlinski finished with 17 points, and Colon registered 16 points and 6 rebounds for the Sea Lions.
The victory extends Azusa Pacific’s winning streak to 16 games, just 1 away from tying the program’s overall winning streak record of 17 wins set in 1986. The Cougars closed out the GSAC regular season with 15 straight wins, setting the program’s GSAC win streak record, and their record now stands at 27-4 heading into a GSAC Tournament semifinals matchup with the NAIA’s No. 17-ranked Vanguard on Friday, March 4 at 7:30 p.m.
“We’re happy because the last time we won in the GSAC Tournament we had to play the next game on the road,” said Byrd, recalling Azusa Pacific’s 2009 visit to Vanguard that resulted in a 73-71 defeat in the GSAC Tournament semifinals. “One of our goals is to win this tournament, and I think everyone is really happy to be able to stay at home and come back here to play Friday.”
Point Loma Nazarene finishes the year with a 13-16 overall record, ending the Sea Lions’ 8-year run of NAIA Tournament appearances.