AZUSA, Calif. -- Azusa Pacific came up short in its bid to sweep the Golden State Athletic Conference regular-season and postseason tournament championships while setting a program-record winning streak, suffering a 79-76 loss at home to the NAIA’s No. 5 California Baptist Monday night in the GSAC Tournament championship game.
The No. 3-ranked Cougars had 3 chances to tie the game in the final minute, including a desperation 3-pointer at the buzzer, but Dana Olsen’s pair of free throws with 5.6 seconds to play gave the Lancers their final 3-point cushion as they snapped Azusa Pacific’s 17-game winning streak and won in the Felix Event Center for the first time ever.
“They played better than we did, and I think they were a little hungrier than we were tonight,” Cougar head coach T.J. Hardeman said. “I think we’ll be hungry from now on. We’re looking forward to getting back to Jackson and playing somebody else that we haven’t played 3 times already.”
Both teams are headed to next week’s NAIA Women’s Basketball National Championship in Jackson, Tennessee, claiming the GSAC’s 2 automatic bids to the national tournament. The full tournament field and bracket announcement will be made Wednesday, March 9, at 4 p.m. (Pacific), on the Victory Sports Network's NAIA Division I Women's Basketball National Championship bracket selection show, which will be streamed live over the Internet.
California Baptist brought an impressive streak of its own into Monday’s title game, winning 6 consecutive games without ever trailing. A quick start kept the Lancers in front or tied for all but 20 seconds, and they led by as many as 15 points midway through the second half. That’s when Azusa Pacific made an equally impressive run, a 17-2 burst in under 3 minutes that tied the game at 60-60 with just over 7 minutes to play.
“We played with a lot of energy there, and it was kind of frustrating that we didn’t do it the whole night,” Hardeman said. “I’m still very proud of this team, for winning the GSAC championship which is incredibly hard to do, and then being down and coming back the way they did against a very good California Baptist team.”
In that run, Azusa Pacific completely erased a 60-47 deficit with 13 consecutive points in just over a minute. After senior guard C.J. Hill knocked down a pair of free throws with 8:10 to play, senior guard Michelle Byrd got a steal from the Cougars’ full court trap off the ensuing inbounds pass and found junior point guard Briana Hall for a 3-pointer that cut the margin to 60-52. Hill then stole the next inbounds pass to set up a Byrd triple, and in a span of 23 seconds, Azusa Pacific had scored 8 in a row to pull to within 60-55 with 7:47 to play.
After a California Baptist timeout, Hill came up with another steal near midcourt. She led junior guard Eboni Sadler on the fast break, although Sadler had to earn 2 points at the free throw line following a hard foul on the layup attempt. Sadler hit 1-of-2 free throws on the next Cougar possession, the result of the Lancers’ Brenna Hahn fouling out with 7:11 left in the game. Hahn led all scorers with 22 points, and yet another turnover on the inbounds play led to a Sadler jumper that tied the game at 60-60 with 7:07 remaining.
The Lancers got the lead back with baskets from Renetha Burton and Marlee Rice on their next 2 possessions, but Hall scored on a drive to the hoop and Byrd hit another 3-pointer that gave Azusa Pacific its only lead of the game, 65-64, with 5:36 to play. Just 20 seconds later, California Baptist guard V.V. Vasciunaite answered with a 3-pointer that sparked an 8-0 run that put the Lancers back in front for good.
“That run gassed us a little bit, and our smaller lineup hurt us a little rebounding-wise,” Hardeman said. “They got a couple key rebounds late that really hurt us. We got them to take the shots we wanted them taking, but they were able to get some offensive rebounds.”
Burton put back a Vasciuanite miss that gave California Baptist a 77-72 cushion heading into the final minute of regulation, and senior center Kristie Hala’ufia brought it back to a 1-possession game with a quick layup in the post that cut the Lancer lead to 3 points with 50 seconds to play. Byrd came up with a steal on the defensive end, missing a layup but rebounding her miss to set up a Hill 3-point attempt from the left corner that drew iron. Sadler grabbed another offensive board and reset the offense, and she was fouled on a 3-point attempt with 20 seconds remaining.
Sadler made the first, missed the second, and made the third free throw on the 3-shot foul, and the Cougars were forced to foul after Vasciunaite rebounded a Burton miss at the other end. Olsen sank both free throws, and Hall took the inbounds pass coast-to-coast under full court pressure. Her running 3-point attempt fell short of the basket, giving California Baptist its second win in 3 tries against Azusa Pacific.
“We really wanted to win this game, and I’m not denying that it hurt,” Hardeman said. “We were just frustrated that we didn’t play better, but when that happens we’re mature enough to work on the next thing, which is to win a national championship.”
California Baptist closed out the opening half with an 8-0 run over the final 3 minutes, taking its largest lead to that point, a 9-point cushion at 37-28, into halftime. Azusa Pacific shot a chilly 31 percent (10-for-32) from the field in the opening half, missing 7 straight shots to close out the period. Hahn had 10 of her game-high 22 in the first half, and she was even better in the second half, hitting 2-of-2 second-half treys before fouling out.
Byrd’s go-ahead 3-pointer that gave Azusa Pacific its only lead of the game capped her 17-point performance, and it put her 1 point away from reaching 1,000 career points. She will be the fifth current player with at least 1,000 career points when she scores her first national tournament points. Sadler scored a team-high 20 points with a game-high 5 steals, and she and Byrd scored 13 points each after halftime. Hall added 15 points and 8 assists, and senior forward Alex Moore-Porter added an 11-point, 4-steal performance.
The Lancers had 5 players in double figures, led by Hahn’s 22-point effort that included 4-of-7 from 3-point range. California Baptist’s All-GSAC tandem of Olsen and Vasciunaite was held to a combined 23 points, but Burton was 9-of-11 from the field for 19 points and a game-high 9 rebounds, and S.J. Simmons added 11 points with a game-high 9 assists for the Lancers.
With the loss, Azusa Pacific heads into the national tournament with a 28-5 overall record, and the Cougars’ 17-game winning streak will share a spot in the program’s record books with the 1986 squad that reeled off 17 straight victories en route to the only 30-win campaign in program history.
“I reminded the team that last year Union lost their conference championship game and then went on to win the national championship, because I think we’ll do the same thing,” Hardeman said. “I feel really confident in our team, and I just thought we didn’t play well tonight and California Baptist did. We’re just happy we have another chance to play.”
California Baptist improves to 26-7 overall as it makes its first national tournament appearance since 1982, and just its second trip ever to the women’s championship.