JACKSON, Tenn. -- Nobody said this would be easy.
Azusa Pacific raced out to a an early double-digit first-half lead, looking every bit deserving of its No. 1-seed and playing like one of the early favorites in this week’s NAIA Women’s Basketball National Championships after a 35-13 run that spanned over 12 minutes and gave the Cougars a commanding 41-20 lead late in the opening half. However, eighth-seeded Belhaven seemed to catch Azusa Pacific off guard by refusing to simply throw up the white flag and concede the game.
“Anytime you get a big early lead, even against a good team like Belhaven, I think the tendency is to take your foot off the gas a little bit,” Cougar head coach T.J. Hardeman said. “Mentally, you give yourself a little bit of a break, and they made us pay for it.”
Senior guard C.J. Hill and junior guard Eboni Sadler came to the rescue down the stretch, however, hitting several crucial buckets to keep the Blazers at bay in a closer-than-expected second half. Hill hit 4-of-7 from 3-point range in a season-high 16-point performance off the bench, and Sadler overcame a case of opening-round nerves to finish with 18 points and 9 rebounds to help lead the Cougars into a second-round matchup Friday afternoon against fourth-seeded Lindsey Wilson (Ky.).
“We just got tentative, and we really haven’t been tentative like that before,” Hardeman said. “I don’t know where that came from, but a win is a win, and when you get one in a national tournament, you can never feel upset when you win. That’s why you try to play well all year – to get a seed in the tournament where you can afford to not necessarily play your best game but still get a win and have some time to clean things up.”
After seeing the lead reach a game-high 21 points with 2:38 left in the half, Belhaven held the Cougars scoreless over the rest of the first half, closing out the period with a 10-0 run to cut the halftime deficit nearly in half to 41-30. Azusa Pacific started the second half as listlessly as it finished the first, going scoreless for another 6 minutes before Hill and Sadler snapped the Cougars out of their offensive funk.
The only good thing about the slow second-half start was that the halftime intermission seemed to cool off Belhaven, too, as the Blazers were only able to carve 6 more points off the Cougar advantage to close the gap to 41-37. That’s when Hill set up Sadler for Azusa Pacific’s first bucket in almost 9 minutes, and Sadler fed Hill for a 3-pointer that sparked an 11-2 run that pushed the lead back into double digits at 50-39 with 11:10 to play.
“My motto before the game was just to be a firecracker off the bench regardless of how we were playing,” said Hill, “to come in and either keep the energy or bring the energy if we needed it.”
Still, Belhaven just wouldn’t go away, pulling to within 5 points on 4 separate occasions down the stretch before Sadler hit a 3-point bomb with the shot clock winding down, drawing a foul and hitting the free throw to complete a momentum-turning 4-point play with 4:42 remaining.
“I saw that I had a post player guarding me, and I could have settled for going to the basket,” Sadler said. “I felt like the clock was winding down, so I took a pretty good shot. I didn’t see it fall in because I got knocked down at the end of it, but it happened to go in.”
Ninety seconds later, Hill knocked down another 3-pointer, her fourth trey of the game, to push the lead back into double figures for good, as the Cougars cruised to the final 14-point margin of victory. Sadler and Hill combined for 20 of Azusa Pacific’s 34 points in the second half.
“I wasn’t planning on this being my last game as a senior,” said Hill, “but if it was I wanted to go out strong and play with confidence.”
For Hill, Wednesday’s explosion only continued her trend of playing her best basketball every season in Oman Arena in the month of March. Two years ago, in a first-round win over Southern Nazarene, Hill knocked down 5 treys, and last year she scored a career-high 24 points in the Cougars’ opening-round win over Montana Tech.
In fact, Hill was Azusa Pacific’s second-leading scorer in the postseason last year during Azusa Pacific’s run to the NAIA title game, averaging 14.2 points in 5 NAIA Tournament contests.
“I thought C.J. did a great job coming off the bench today,” Hardeman said. “She was an all-tournament player last year, and there must be something about this arena that she likes.”
Sadler scored 12 of her 18 points after halftime, providing a clutch second-half effort after admitting that the nerves of playing in the first national-tournament game of her collegiate career got the best of her early. In the first 2 possessions, Sadler missed a 3-pointer and turned the ball over, and she was 3-of-9 from the field in the first half. She proved to be a quick study, though, coming through down the stretch with 8 of the Cougars’ first 11 second-half points followed by her back-breaking 4-point play.
“I was so ready for the game to start so the nerves could get out,” Sadler said. “I’ve never been this nervous before, but this is my first time ever getting to a national tournament in college. I feel really honored to be on a team that gets this far every year, and then be able to come in and have them take me with them makes me feel truly blessed for that opportunity.”
They were joined in double figures by senior forward Alex Moore-Porter (10 points) and junior point guard Briana Hall, who scored 13 points while adding 5 rebounds, 4 steals, and 4 assists. Hall entered the tournament as the NAIA’s total assists leader, and she now has 205 assists and needs another 4 to tie the Azusa Pacific single-season assists record of 209.
Senior guard Michelle Byrd made a pair of first-half free throws for her only 2 points of the night, but that was enough to push her career scoring total over 1,000 points. Azusa Pacific now has 5 1,000-point scorers on the current roster, with all 5 sharing the floor during several stretches of the game.
“Having five 1,000-point scorers is a testament to the players in this program letting everyone take turns in different roles,” Hardeman said. “We have a lot of good players, and it’s been neat to see them mesh with each other and set each other up. We talk a lot about making someone else on the team look good, and obviously they’ve done that because they’ve all looked good. Sometimes it’s one person, sometimes it’s another, but it seems like there’s always someone there ready to step up for us.”
Belhaven was led by Southern States Athletic Conference co-Player of the Year Regena Jackson, a junior guard who scored a game-high 22 points but went 10-of-30 from the field including misfires on all 8 of her 3-point attempts. Sarah Carr added 18 points for the Blazers, who grabbed 20 offensive boards but lost the overall rebounding battle by 10, 55-45. Junior center Amber Williams pulled down a game-high 12 rebounds in 18 minutes off the bench, and senior center Kristie Hala’ufia added 10 boards to go with 8 points and a pair of blocks.
With the win, Azusa Pacific improves to 29-5 on the season, while Belhaven’s finest season in nearly 30 years concludes with a 24-9 overall mark.