JACKSON, Tenn. -- Head coach T.J. Hardeman focused on one number on his stat sheet following Azusa Pacific’s 71-67 win over fourth-seeded Lindsey Wilson (Ky.) in the NAIA Women’s Basketball National Championship Friday afternoon at Oman Arena.
The number he couldn't stop looking at was the number 30, representing his No. 1-seeded Cougars’ season win total that now ties the program record for wins in a season.
“To be part of a program like Azusa Pacific and then know we’ve won as many games as any team has ever won here, it’s a neat feeling,” Hardeman explained. “It’s a neat feeling to be at a special school, and to be able to have a special year like this. We just thank God we’ve been able to get as far as we’ve gotten, and I hope we can put a few more wins up there.”
Azusa Pacific never trailed, although for the second straight game the Cougars had plenty of nervous moments. However, the one thing they never relinquished was the lead, reeling off an 8-0 run in a crucial 4-minute stretch late in the game after Lindsey Wilson had tied the game at 57-57 with 8:10 remaining.
Junior point guard Briana Hall dished out 6 assists to break the program’s single-season assist record, and the record-breaking assist to senior forward Alex Moore-Porter was the spark that ignited the 8-point burst. Hall set up a Sadler bucket at the end of the run to give the Cougars a 65-57 lead with 4:08 to play and push her program-record season assist total to an NAIA-leading 211. The previous Azusa Pacific record was 209, set in 2002 by Jacqueline Godoy.
“I like to contribute to my team a lot, and I just try to let the game come to me without rushing anything,” Hall said. “Even though I’m not a senior, I view this as my last year playing with this type of team. I don’t know what team I’m going to get next year, but I love the team I’m with now and want to make it as far as I can with this group.”
Lindsey Wilson, which overcame a 16-point second-half deficit in its first-round win over Southern Nazarene, erased a 14-point margin, Azusa Pacific’s largest lead of the game, with a 24-10 run over a 10-minute stretch of the second half to tie the game at 57-57. However, after the Cougars answered with 8 straight, the Blue Raiders could only get it back to a 1-possession game one last time when Tiffany Williams’ 3-pointer cut Azusa Pacific’s lead to 67-64 with 1:53 to play.
Junior center Amber Williams grabbed an offensive rebound on the ensuing Cougar possession, helping bleed nearly a full minute off the clock despite 2 missed shot attempts. Tiffany Williams missed on a game-tying three-point attempt, grabbed her own rebound and missed from inside the arc, and the Cougars’ Amber Williams secured the defensive board and got the ball safely into Hall’s hands. Azusa Pacific scored its final 4 points in the last 36 seconds of the game on free throws, and Diondra Anthony hit a 3-pointer with three-tenths of a second left on the clock for the final 71-67 margin.
With the win, Azusa Pacific returns to the quarterfinals for the second straight season, where they will take on sixth-seeded Lubbock Christian (Texas) at 4 p.m. Central time on Saturday. The Cougars’ 30-5 record matches the record of the 1986 campaign, which is the only other 30-win season in Azusa Pacific’s program history.
“It’s a ladder, and each step is a game,” Moore-Porter said. “You don’t want to think behind you and you don’t want to think in front of you, you just want to take it one step at a time. I was proud of the resiliency the team showed today, because Lindsey Wilson was a great team.”
Junior guard Eboni Sadlerscored 18 points to lead the Cougars’ balanced scoring effort that featured 3 others in double figures. Moore-Porter scored 17 points with a team-high 9 rebounds, and Hall added 15 points to go with her 6-assist, 3-steal performance.
“We obviously have a ton of good players, but Briana just makes us go,” Hardeman said. “She sets up everything we do, she’s a great shooter, she can shoot free throws, she can handle the ball, and she can beat you off the dribble. She does everything, and she’s the best point guard in our conference, and I like her better than anybody I’ve seen here. As a coach, to be able to put somebody on the floor who sometimes makes you look like you know what you’re doing is kind of fun.”
Senior guard Michelle Byrd added 12 points, and Williams contributed 29 gutsy minutes off the bench with 5 points and 6 key rebounds.
Lindsey Wilson, the NAIA’s second-highest shooting percentage team, shot just a percentage point below its .476 season average, going 27-for-58 (.466), and got an impressive 23-point, 19-rebound performance from 6-foot-2 sophomore Ashley Rainey. However, Azusa Pacific built up a 13-point halftime lead while Rainey was putting up a 13-point, 14-rebound halftime double-double, then held her to 10 points and 5 rebounds in the second half.
“Our defense has been getting better each game, and tonight we did a great job executing our defense,” Moore-Porter said. “When they got it inside, their shots were contested and they weren’t knocking down their outside shots.”
The Cougars finished the first half with a 17-6 run that started with a full-court pressure defense that seemed to catch Lindsey Wilson off-guard. After senior guard C.J. Hill knocked down a pair of free throws, Azusa Pacific came up with back-to-back steals in the backcourt, both resulting in easy layups. When Lindsey Wilson got the ball out of the Cougars’ press on its next possession, Viktoria Krell missed a quick shot that turned into another basket in transition for Azusa Pacific. In a matter of 48 seconds, the Cougars scored 8 straight points to turn a slim 27-25 margin into its first double-digit lead, 35-25, with 4:35 remaining in the half.
“That was huge to get some separation right there and give us some breathing room,” Hardeman said. “We run that press a lot, but when there are games almost 5 days straight, you have to be a little bit selective about when you want to jump all over something because that takes high energy over an extended period of time. It was effective right there, and it did what we wanted to do to get that separation which we obviously needed in the second half.”
Azusa Pacific had its fourth-fewest turnovers in a game this season, committing 10 turnovers while forcing 18 Lindsey Wilson turnovers that included 10 Cougar steals. The result was an 8-turnover margin in a game where the teams were only 1 field goal made, 1 shooting percentage point, 1 rebound, and 2 fouls apart in the final totals.
“We thought the key for us was limiting our turnovers, which in a game like this was huge,” Hardeman said. “That again speaks to Briana and the guards handling the ball well and being smart with it. Our defense created 18 turnovers, so you have to be happy when you get 8 extra possessions in a tight game like that.”
The Cougars took a 44-31 lead into the half, and a Moore-Porter trey less than 2 minutes into the second half gave Azusa Pacific its largest lead of the game, a 14-point margin at 47-33. However, Krell and Rainey combined for the first 14 points of a 17-5 run over a 7-minute stretch that tied the game at 57-57 with 8:10 to play. Late in the run, Rainey sank a layup and was fouled by senior center Kristie Hala’ufia, who also picked up a technical foul in protest that gave Rainey an opportunity for a 5-point play. Rainey knocked down the 2 free throws from the technical, but she missed the 1-shot bonus, allowing Hall to give the Cougars a 3-point lead their next possession before Bethany Spillman’s game-tying 3-pointer with 8:10 to play.
Lindsey Wilson, which finishes the year 24-9 overall, has seen its season end in the NAIA Tournament’s second round for the third time in the past 4 seasons.