AZUSA, Calif. -- Azusa Pacific put an exclamation point on its season sweep of Vanguard with an 81-62 victory in Friday’s semifinals of the Golden State Athletic Conference postseason tournament.
The victory was the widest margin of victory in all 3 games this year between teams that shared last season’s GSAC regular-season title, which was Vanguard’s seventh GSAC title in an 8-year stretch. It was the Cougars that officially eliminated Vanguard from the GSAC title race in mid-February, and Friday’s result knocked the Lions out of the conference tournament prior to the championship game for just the second time in the past 9 years.
Junior All-GSAC guard Eboni Sadler scored a game-high 26 points on 11-of-15 shooting from the field, and she was 1 point away from tying her career-high that she set in a Jan. 8 win over Westmont that started Azusa Pacific’s current 17-game winning streak. The streak ties the program-record for longest overall win streak, which was set in 1986 during the only 30-win season in program history.
“I only know what my teammates tell me about Vanguard before this year, but I can only focus on this year and what I see for myself,” Sadler said. “I treat them like any other team, and any team that comes to play us is a personal challenge.”
Vanguard never trailed in the first 12 minutes of the game, using a Danielle Arriola 3-pointer at the 15-minute mark of the first half to take its largest lead of the game at 19-12. All-GSAC center Molly Pfohl’s easy layup on an inbounds play kept the Lions in front, 25-21, with just over 10 minutes left in the half, but Azusa Pacific finished the opening half on a 20-5 run that included an 11-0 burst that gave the Cougars the lead for good.
“Our players were confident that we were the better team, and that was going to show in 40 minutes,” Cougar head coach T.J. Hardeman said. “When you can play with that kind of confidence, it’s a nice feeling. We have a lot of weapons, and it was nice to see our players find each other and share the ball in a good team effort.”
Sadler scored 7 of her 17 first-half points in the run, and the Cougars’ full-court pressure defense began to take its toll. Vanguard was 1-for-16 from the field over the final 10 minutes of the half, committing 5 turnovers during the stretch, and the Lions faced a double-digit halftime deficit at 41-30.
“I didn’t feel like I did anything differently between this game and the last game, except I knew we needed to get to Monday’s game,” Sadler said. “We just focused on this game, and we wanted to go out strong and continue to pressure them without letting them back into the game.”
Vanguard trimmed Azusa Pacific’s lead down to 9 points 5 times in the first 8 minutes of the second half, but senior center Kristie Hala’ufia bookended an 8-0 run that lasted less than 90 seconds to give the Cougars a 60-43 advantage with 10:50 left in the game. Azusa Pacific never led by fewer than 14 points the rest of the way, twice expanding the lead into the 20s in the closing minutes of the game.
Hala’ufia finished with 10 points and 5 rebounds, and junior All-GSAC point guard Briana Hall was 1 assist shy of posting her second straight double-double. Hall, who scored her 1,000th career point in the Cougars’ Feb. 17 win against Vanguard, tallied 11 points, 9 assists, and a season-high 6 steals while helping her team to a 36-17 advantage in points off turnovers. Senior All-GSAC forward Alex Moore-Porter added 13 points with a team-high 7 rebounds, and senior guard C.J. Hill and junior center Amber Williams combined for 15 of the Cougars’ 16 points off the bench.
Hill and senior guard Michelle Byrd became the program’s all-time leaders in games played, with each making their 134th appearance in 4 years to break the previous record of 133 games held by Sarah Leathers (2005-08).
Vanguard posted a 49-39 rebounding advantage, including 34 offensive rebounds, but the Lions shot just 28 percent (22-for-78) from the field, the lowest shooting percentage by a Cougar opponent since the season opener. Pfohl was 1 of 2 players with double-doubles for the Lions, scoring a team-high 16 points with 10 boards while Allison Burns added 11 points and 11 rebounds. All-GSAC guard Sarah Boyd finished with 14 points, and Chelsea Alfalfara got 11 points despite hitting just 1-of-11 3-point attempts.
With the win, Azusa Pacific advances to the GSAC Tournament championship game for the first time since 2002, when the Cougars claimed a share of the GSAC regular-season title and defeated Fresno Pacific for the tournament title, as well. The Cougars improve to 28-4 overall heading into Monday’s GSAC title game, where they will host the NAIA’s No. 5-ranked California Baptist, which brings a 6-game winning streak into Monday’s 7:30 p.m. championship matchup in the Felix Event Center.
“We’re grateful to play these ranked teams, to show other people and prove to ourselves that we are getting better as a team,” Sadler said. “Playing good competition within our conference has given us good preparation for what we’ll face in Tennessee.”
Because Azusa Pacific won the GSAC regular-season crown outright, California Baptist’s tournament title-game appearance makes the Lancers the recipient of the second GSAC automatic bid into the 32-team NAIA Women’s Basketball National Championship field.
“This tournament gets us ready to go,” Hardeman said. “We’re playing teams that are very good that will be at the national tournament, and we get to play them in our gym.”
Vanguard falls to 17-11 and must remain ranked high enough in the final NAIA Top 25 Coaches’ Poll to receive an at-large berth into the NAIA Tournament.