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Here We Go Again

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March 21, 2011
Joe Reinsch
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JACKSON, Tenn. -- After spending an entire season playing for the opportunity to take another crack at winning an NAIA championship, Azusa Pacific will get its second shot at a title after beating Freed-Hardeman (Tenn.) Monday night, 58-46, in the semifinals of the 2011 NAIA Division I Women’s Basketball National Championship.

The Cougars’ title-game opponent is none other than the 2-time defending champion and local favorite Union (Tenn.), which celebrated back-to-back NAIA championships on the Oman Arena floor exactly 1 year ago while Azusa Pacific immediately set its sights on returning to Jackson, Tenn., for another shot at the title. By returning to the championship game, the Cougars become the ninth NAIA Division I program to play in consecutive title games.

With a finals berth opposite Union at stake, Azusa Pacific rallied from a 34-30 halftime deficit with a suffocating full-court trap against a Freed-Hardeman lineup in which 4 starters played the entire opening half while the fifth starter only subbed out for a single free throw attempt. The Cougars opened the second half with an 11-0 run, holding Freed-Hardeman scoreless for nearly 7 minutes after halftime.

“I guess it wasn’t yesterday that we played them, but it’s been a long year with that as our goal since we did play them, to get back here and play Union,” Cougar head coach T.J. Hardeman said. “The girls wanted to get back here and play them again. There was this assumption that Union would make it, along with the assumption that we’d make it. That’s assuming a lot, but we are here and we are playing them, so we’re happy with that.”

When all was said and done, Freed-Hardeman managed only 12 points in the second half on a 4-for-27 (15 percent) shooting performance. The 12-point half was only 1 point more than the lowest-scoring half for a team in the entire tournament, which was an 11-point opening half for Evangel (Mo.) in a second-round game against Bethel (Tenn.) that tied the tournament record for lowest combined score in a game.

“We wanted to change it up in the second half so they wouldn’t have a chance to adjust to the defense at halftime,” Hardeman said. “We knew exactly what we were going to adjust to, so we switched it around a little bit to take away some of the stuff that they were going to. It was awesome to see how we contested their shots, rebounded, knew where their best shooter was at all times, and just limited their second-chance opportunities. We were a focused team on defense.”

After an opening half that featured 8 ties plus 8 lead changes, Azusa Pacific seized the lead barely 2 minutes after halftime and never relinquished it again. The 11-point burst took less than 3 minutes, and Meribeth Boehler finally snapped the Lady Lions’ scoreless streak with 13:10 remaining to cut the Cougars’ lead to 41-36.

A Natalie Shumpert 3-pointer with 9:29 left pulled Freed-Hardeman as close as it would get the rest of the way, 45-41, and another Shumpert trey with just under 5 minutes to play kept the Lady Lions within striking distance at 49-44. However, junior point guard Briana Hall drained a 3-pointer that sparked a 9-2 game-ending run for the Cougars. Hall scored 7 of the 9 points in the run, and she registered the assist on the other 2 points, providing Azusa Pacific with its biggest lead of the game with the final 12-point margin.

“I just want to get out on the court right now and play for the championship,” Hall said. “I’m glad we made it this far and we deserve to be out there tomorrow night to win it.”

Hall was 1 of 3 Cougars who scored a team-high 11 points each, and she added game-highs of 6 steals and 6 assists, extending her program-record and NAIA-leading season assist total to 222.

“Our defense basically shut everything down and set it off for us,” Hall said. “I wanted to win this game to make it to tomorrow more than anything, and I felt like we all wanted it and our hunger was brought out on the court.”

She was joined by 11-point scorers Eboni Sadler and C.J. Hill, and senior center Kristie Hala’ufia added 10 points with 6 rebounds.

“After you stay through Sunday, go to church, and get a day off, your adrenaline starts pumping,” Hala’ufia said. “Once Monday night hits, you know it’s time to go to work. I don’t think there is any other team we’d want to play against in the championship than Union. They’ve done a great job this whole year, and they did a great job getting here. We did a great job getting here, as well, so I think we’re both looking forward to a good game. After last year, our team is hungry. We want that national championship bad, so we’re going to do everything in our power to get it.”

Sadler grabbed a career-high 10 rebounds for her first career double-double, leading Azusa Pacific to a 37-33 edge on the boards, and she added 3 blocks to go with a pair of steals.

“That’s been our philosophy all year, to wear other teams down,” Hardeman said. “It’s not going to happen in the first 5 minutes or the first 10 minutes, probably not even in the first half. But late in the game, after bumping against Amber and Kristie, trying to guard Eboni, trying to stay with Briana, and staying in front of Michelle and C.J., that’s going to wear you down. Freed-Hardeman did a great job defensively with Alex today, but it was fatiguing for them to have to do that.”

The Cougars conceded a first-half double-double to Boehler, the WBCA/State Farm NAIA Player of the Year who finished with game-highs of 18 points and 16 rebounds. Shumpert was the only other Freed-Hardeman player in double figures, but she needed 22 shots from the field to score 12 points. The Lady Lions didn’t have a single player shoot better than 50 percent in the game, and they finished the game with a .317 (19-for-60) shooting percentage.

“Meribeth is awesome, their guards are awesome, and I think people overlook them because they’re not big,” said Hardeman, “but they just fought for every loose ball.”

“Freed-Hardeman battled their hearts out, and when a team does that, it’s hard to beat them. They obviously took care of some good teams along the way, so we feel lucky to have beaten them. We had a person behind Meribeth most of the time with everybody else sagging in, and we really tried to make the other players beat us and not let Meribeth beat us. She got loose a few times, because she’s a very good player, but we always wanted to know where she was, keep a hand up on her, and stay down on her defensively. I thought our bigs did a good job of that and made her earn everything she got. She’s had a good career, and she has nothing to be ashamed of.”

Five Azusa Pacific players established a new season record for games played by appearing in their 37th game of the year – Hall, Hill, seniors Alex Moore-Porter and Michelle Byrd, along with junior Amber Williams have played in every game of the Cougars’ 32-5 campaign which has also set the program’s single-season wins record.

“We always wanted to get back to the national championship, and we kind of pictured it would be against Union,” Hill said. “We’ve been looking forward to this since the last year’s championship right after the buzzer when we lost, so we’ve just been waiting for this rematch.”

Freed-Hardeman finishes the season with a 27-9 overall record. The Lady Lions drop to 0-4 all-time against Azusa Pacific, with all 4 meetings taking place as neutral-site games in Jackson that includes a pair of national tournament defeats.

The 2011 NAIA Division I Women’s Basketball National Championship tips off Tuesday night at 7 p.m. Central time, and it will be broadcast live to a national television audience on the CBS College Sports network.