AZUSA, Calif. -- Azusa Pacific finished No. 3 in the final NAIA Coaches’ Poll, and the Cougars earned one of the 4 coveted No. 1 seeds at next week’s NAIA Women’s Basketball National Championship tournament in Jackson, Tenn.
The Cougars’ first-round opponent will be Belhaven (Miss.) University, which posted its first 20-win season since 1982 and will be making its first-ever NAIA Tournament appearance. The teams are scheduled to tip off at 2:15 p.m. on Thursday, March 17, at Jackson’s Oman Arena, in a game that also represents Azusa Pacific’s first-ever meeting against a program from the state of Mississippi.
“Every team you play at this tournament is going to be good,” Cougar head coach T.J. Hardeman said. “We’re in a good time slot, and we’re just excited to get back onto the court and continue what has been a special season for us.”
The NAIA national office released the first-round pairings and full 32-team bracket Wednesday afternoon, and Azusa Pacific secured the automatic bid for the Golden State Athletic Conference regular-season champion by winning the conference title by a full 2 games over California Baptist and Biola, who also each finished ranked in the NAIA’s top 10. The Cougars were 18-2 in conference play and will bring a 28-5 overall record to Jackson.
“We worked very hard to win the GSAC and get that automatic bid, and the No. 1 seed is a nice reward,” Hardeman said.
Azusa Pacific is a No. 1 seed for the first time in 13 all-time national tournament appearances. The NAIA’s women’s tournament seeds each of the 4 quarters of the bracket from 1 through 8, so the Cougars are 1 of 4 teams in the tournament with a No. 1 seed. The others are No. 1-ranked Union (Tenn.), No. 2-ranked Campbellsville (Ky.), and No. 4-ranked Oklahoma City. The Cougars were a No. 2 seed last year, advancing all the way to the program’s first-ever NAIA title game, where they suffered a 73-65 defeat to Union.
All 5 starters from last year’s title game are back for Azusa Pacific, along with All-GSAC newcomer and the team’s second-leading scorer Eboni Sadler, who averaged 14.2 points, 5.3 rebounds, and 2.3 steals per game. The Cougars have 4 players who have scored 1,000 career points, and a fifth, senior guard Michelle Byrd, enters the tournament with 999 career points and will become the fifth current Cougar to reach the 1,000-point milestone. Azusa Pacific’s other All-GSAC selections were its scoring leader, senior forward Alex Moore-Porter, who averages 15.6 points and 5.7 rebounds per game, and junior point guard Briana Hall, who needs 8 assists to tie the program’s single-season assists record of 209.
Belhaven is led by junior Regena Jackson, who was named the Southern States Athletic Conference co-Player of the Year. Jackson, a 5-foot-7 guard who averages a team-high 17 points per game, was joined on the All-SSAC team by junior guard Kiara Johnson, who averages 12.4 points per game. The Blazers posted a 24-8 record on the year, and they are 1-2 against NAIA Tournament qualifiers, splitting a pair of games with Gulf Coast Athletic Conference champion Xavier (La.) and suffering a 67-60 defeat to fellow SSAC member Southern Polytechnic State (Ga.) in the conference tournament semifinals.
The GSAC has 5 representatives in the tournament field, and the soonest Azusa Pacific could meet a conference rival would be in the national semifinals against Vanguard or Westmont, who are both in the quarter of No. 1-seed Campbellsville.
Azusa Pacific is 8-13 all-time in NAIA Tournament play, with 5 of those victories coming under fourth-year head coach T.J. Hardeman, who has a 4-year record of 104-31 at Azusa Pacific.