JACKSON, Tenn. -- If Azusa Pacific was in any danger of overlooking sixth-seeded Lubbock Christian with a return trip to the NAIA semifinals at stake, all it had to do was peek through the curtain.
As the No. 1-seeded Cougars waited for the pregame warmup for their quarterfinal matchup, they peered into Oman Arena from the outer hallway to see No. 6-seed Shawnee State deliver a shocking upset over No. 1-seed Oklahoma City in the first quarterfinal of the day.
Their response was a wire-to-wire 79-54 win that launched Azusa Pacific into the Fab Four of the NAIA Women’s Basketball National Championship for the second consecutive season. The Cougars, winners of a program-record 31 games this year, draw second-seeded Freed-Hardeman (Tenn.) in Monday’s 8 p.m. Central time semifinal matchup, which follows another Shawnee State upset bid against defending champion Union (Tenn.) in the other semifinal.
“If you can’t win 31 games with five 1,000-point scorers on your team, you need a new coach,” joked head coach T.J. Hardeman. “When you have that many good players, you had better be able to win a lot of games.”
The Cougars had 6 players score in double figures, and junior guard Eboni Sadler led the way with a game-high 21 points to lead the team in scoring for the fifth straight game this postseason. Joining her in double figures was senior forward Alex Moore-Porter, who scored all 13 of her points in the first half and took only 2 shots after halftime, and senior guard Michelle Byrd, who was 3-of-7 from beyond the 3-point arc in an 11-point effort. Moore-Porter’s performance moved her into third on the Cougars’ career scoring list, giving her 1,811 points in 3 years to pass Monica Somers’ career scoring total of 1,803 points.
“We had 6 players in double figures, and that makes us really hard to guard,” Hardeman said. “We have so many people that contribute, and they contributed at different times. Alex really came out of the gate strong to get us going, and Eboni caught fire in the second half. It’s nice as a coach to know that we have several different things we can get going rather than counting on just one player.”
The second- and third-place Golden State Athletic Conference teams, California Baptist and Biola, had also both been eliminated from national tournament play in earlier rounds by teams seeded sixth. Azusa Pacific made sure it wouldn’t suffer the same fate as its conference counterparts by jumping out to an early 18-6 lead in the first 6 minutes of the game. After Lubbock Christian got back to within 5 with a 7-0 burst, the Cougars went on an 18-3 run in just over 5 minutes of play, turning an 18-13 edge into a commanding 20-point lead, its largest of the half, with 5:44 left in the period.
The Lady Chaps did post an 11-2 run to get to within 40-30 with a minute and a half left in the first half, but senior center Kristie Hala’ufia scored with a minute left to send Azusa Pacific into halftime with a 42-30 advantage. The lead stayed in double-digits the rest of the way, with Lubbock Christian pulling to within 10 points again with 13:41 remaining and trailing by 11 with 10:53 left before the Cougars put the game away with a 15-2 that pushed the margin to 69-45 with 5 minutes to play.
“We were under control, and we got the ball where we wanted at the times we wanted to,” Hardeman said. “We executed well, and there was no panic at any point. Against Belhaven, I think there was a little bit of panic in thinking that we should have been winning that game by more than we were. Every team we play this deep in the tournament is very good, and I think that settled us down.”
Sadler scored 15 of her 21 points after halftime, hitting 5 of her 7 shots from the field and scoring 8 of the Cougars’ points in the 15-2 run, including a 3-point play where she was fouled while finishing an athletic, highlight-worthy reverse layup. Junior point guard Briana Hall scored 10- points with 5 rebounds and 3 steals, and she added another 5 assists to add to her Azusa Pacific-record season total that now stands at 216.
The Cougars controlled the paint, out-rebounding Lubbock Christian by 10 (41-31) with junior center Amber Williams and Hala’ufia scoring 10 points each and combining for 15 boards.
“I don’t even think about who’s in or out (with Kristie and Amber), and I substitute them based on who is tired,” Hardeman said. “There are obviously other situations where they are in the game together, and when that happens we’re an incredibly big team to try to rebound against. I thought we did a good job on the boards today.”
Azusa Pacific also coerced the Lady Chaps into 19 turnovers, and Lubbock Christian shot a chilly 30 percent (18-for-60) from the field that included an 8-for-34 second-half shooting performance.
Lubbock Christian was making its third appearance in the quarterfinals, and the Lady Chaps were paced by Emily Atkins’ team-high 16 points. April Ehlers added 12 points, but no individual player pulled down more than 4 rebounds for Lubbock Christian, which was held to 10 first-half boards.
Azusa Pacific has now won 8 of its last 10 games in national tournament play after going 3-10 in the program’s first 10 NAIA tourneys.
“It’s all about players,” Hardeman said. “If you get good players, you win games. They’re veterans now, and hitting milestones for each of them just reiterates how good they all are. We’ve assembled a great team and it’s neat to be a part of it. I always thank God that (Athletic Director) Bill Odell hired me at Azusa Pacific so I could be a part of that, because this is truly a neat experience.”
The 25-point margin of victory was the Cougars’ largest in a national tournament victory, and it was the worst defeat Lubbock Christian has ever suffered in its 8 NAIA Tournament appearances.