JACKSON, Tenn. -- Azusa Pacific completed a journey Tuesday night, a route that both began and ended in Jackson’s Oman Arena, where the NAIA Division I Women’s Basketball National Championship ended its 21-year run with Jackson as the host city when the Cougars defeated 2-time defending champion Union (Tenn.) University, 65-59, Tuesday night for the program’s first-ever national title.
The 2011 championship game was a rematch of last year’s title game, although Azusa Pacific’s path to hoisting the NAIA banner actually began in 2009. That’s when the Cougars suffered a second-round defeat to Lambuth (Tenn.), a loss that up until Tuesday night still stung as badly as any defeat in the careers of 5 Azusa Pacific seniors.
It was after that loss that head coach T.J. Hardeman challenged a young team that certainly had the talent to make a deep national tournament run to come back to fulfill its potential and return to Oman Arena to win a national championship. It was certainly an optimistic goal, considering Azusa Pacific had only won 3 national tournament games in 10 appearances prior to 2009, but Hardeman used the sting of unrealized potential to jump-start the program and lead the Cougars all the way to the 2010 championship.
Another bitter-tasting defeat ended Azusa Pacific’s season in the title game, but Hardeman again challenged his players to channel their disappointment into the unseen hard work that ultimately leads to a 9-point difference in a single basketball game – a margin that would have resulted in a 2010 championship. His players responded with an historic campaign. They tied a program-record with a 17-game winning streak and set a single-season record for wins with 33, and they did so with an unselfish brand of basketball geared around a fearsome defense, a team-first mentality, and a propensity for strong finishes.
“It felt awesome to know that we worked for this, to know how much time the girls have put into this,” Hardeman said. “Our trainer always talks about plus-9, and all the girls know what that means. It means that when we would finish our drills, we would do 9 more of this or 9 more of that to get those 9 more points that we needed last year to win. That plus-9 paid off for us.”
Five players ended the campaign with at least 1,000 career points, and one player led the NAIA with a program-record in assists, which is the only statistical category in basketball that measures unselfishness.
On Tuesday night, Azusa Pacific topped it all off with the program’s first national title, refusing to experience once again the pain and disappointment that drove it back to this point. A national cable television audience watched a resilient, determined set of Cougars claw back against the most successful women’s basketball program in NAIA history in their own hometown, using a 16-6 game-ending run over the final 6 minutes to claim the final NAIA championship awarded on the Oman Arena floor.
“To work hard towards a goal and achieve it is the meaning of satisfaction,” Hardeman said. “I’ve been telling everybody for 2 months we were going to win the national championship. I really felt that, and I figured that if I felt it, I might as well say it. I’ve been saying it, and I think they believed it.”
Trailing by 7 points, 40-33, just over 5 minutes into the second half of a game Azusa Pacific had trailed from the outset, the shortest player on the court gave the Cougars the spark they desperately needed. Senior guard C.J. Hill, all 5-foot-4 of her, tracked down a long rebound off the back end of a pair of missed Azusa Pacific free throws and led junior guard Eboni Sadler into the lane for an easy layup for the first points of an 8-0 burst that gave the Cougars their first lead of the game at 41-40 with 12:37 to play.
The entire run took less than 3 minutes, but it featured every example of why this Azusa Pacific squad wasn’t going to be satisfied by just making it to the championship game or almost winning a tough game. Junior point guard Briana Hall, plagued with 7 turnovers in the game, refused to allow her offensive struggles to impact her defense, poking away a steal that led to an easy Hill fast-break layup that pulled the Cougars to within 40-37. A fourth consecutive Union turnover led to another easy layup, this one from senior center Kristie Hala’ufia that cut it to a 1-point margin at 40-39.
Kayla Hudson, who launched and swished 3-pointers from what seemed like the next county throughout the game, finally missed from long range with Hill pulling down the long rebound. Senior forward Alex Moore-Porter, who uncharacteristically missed the 2 free throws that Hill saved with the offensive board, finished off the run and gave Azusa Pacific its first lead by calmly knocking down another pair from the charity stripe to give the Cougars a 41-40 edge with 12:37 left.
Over the next 11 minutes, neither team led by more than 3 points except when Hudson drilled her fifth 3-pointer of the game to push Union ahead by 4 points, 53-49, with 6:25 remaining. That’s when Hill went back into the paint to somehow rip away consecutive offensive rebounds before she was fouled by Union’s 6-foot-4 center Zeinab Chan in the paint. Hill made the free throws to cut Union’s lead back to a manageable 2 points, 53-51, and Moore-Porter tied it with a short jumper with 4:35 to play.
The Cougars never trailed again, using their defensive momentum to take the game into the final 2 minutes with the score tied at 55-all. Despite rare back-to-back misses at the free throw line again for Moore-Porter, Hall was able to swipe the ball away from Chan on the next Union possession and cruise in for the go-ahead layup that gave Azusa Pacific a 57-55 lead with 1:14 remaining. After Sadler rebounded a 2-point Hudson miss, she was fouled with 51 seconds left and hit both shots of the double bonus free throws to push the lead to 59-55.
“It was tough at the beginning to fall back like we did, but we were not giving up because we were so hungry for this,” Hall said. “I was nervous at the beginning, and I tried to block it out and play through it. Luckily my teammates helped me out. I’m so grateful to play with a team like this. We worked all year for this, every season we have worked to win this game, and now we did it.”
Chan kept Union alive with an easy inside bucket, and another Hall turnover set up a Hudson 3-pointer that would have given the Lady Bulldogs the lead. The shot drew all iron, and Hall rebounded the miss and hit 2 free throws at the other end to push the lead back to 4 points. Lavanda Ross took an easy inside layup with 21 seconds left to cut the lead in half, 61-59, but Sadler iced the game with 4 free throws in the final 20 seconds.
“When I saw the clock stopped at 1.3, I was thinking, ‘We really did this,’ ” Sadler said. “The buzzer went off, and I ran to my teammates. When I felt their embrace, I felt all the hard work we all put into this. I felt all of that in a hug with my teammates.”
Moore-Porter and Sadler shared Azusa Pacific’s team scoring lead with 17 points each. Moore-Porter helped keep the game from getting out of control early in the first half, answering a Chan 3-point play just seconds later with a 3-pointer of her own that kept Union’s lead at a manageable 5 points, 19-14, with just under 8 minutes left in the opening half. She hit another trey with 2:21 to play in the half, cutting the Cougar deficit to 29-27, although Kayla Bryant answered with a triple that sent the Lady Bulldogs into halftime with a 32-27 margin.
“When we played as bad as we did in the first half and we were still in it,” said Hardeman, “I thought if they can’t put us away while we’re playing like this, if we just start playing a little bit better, they’re going to be in trouble. That’s what we talked about at halftime; we’re only five down, let’s put it together. Everyone in the locker room believed and I told them that we are going to win this game, you wait and see. We talked about not wanting to, but actually doing it. That was our goal, to do it as a team.”
Sadler converted a conventional 3-point play less than 90 seconds into the second half, again chopping the lead down to a single basket, 34-32, with 18:35 remaining in the game. She scored 15 of her 17 points in the second half a pair of game-tying baskets that pulled the Cougars even at 45-45 and 47-47 in the final 10 minutes of play.
“Every time I put my head down or got a foul, my team kept me focused on the next play,” said Sadler, who sat out the final 6 minutes of the first half after picking up her second foul. “I just had to play through it and keep a positive attitude for my teammates, because I didn’t want them to think that I was disappointed in them or how they were playing. It was just a personal thing, knowing I had to get myself together and make up for it in the second half because I was in foul trouble in the first half and couldn’t help as much.”
All 8 Cougars who played had a significant contribution in some phase of the game, none as glamorous as the double-figure scoring efforts of Sadler and Moore-Porter but all were just as vital to the final 6-point margin of victory.
“Defense, effort, hustle, and desire – in these types of games, everybody has injuries and is playing through a lot of adversity,” said Moore-Porter, “but whoever wants it the most and sticks together most is the one who’s going to win. I couldn’t ask God for a better finish to my college career.”
Hill posted 7 points with 5 rebounds, keying the second-half run that got Azusa Pacific back into the game. Hall finished with 6 points, but she grabbed a game-high 8 rebounds with 5 steals and 6 assists to run her Cougar single-season assist record total to an NAIA-high 228.
Hala’ufia missed 2 shots in the first 3 minutes of the game and recognized it just wasn’t her night offensively, so she picked her spots offensively the rest of the way. She made 3-of-4 after those first 2 misses, finishing with 6 points and 3 rebounds while providing 17 minutes of tough defense on Chan in the post. Senior guard Michelle Byrd was 3-for-3 from the field in the first half, but she finished with those 6 points without attempting another shot while focusing her second-half efforts on slowing the Lady Bulldogs along the perimeter.
Junior center Amber Williams scored 6 points with 3 rebounds, and she was another imposing physical presence inside for Chan to deal with. Even senior guard Jessica Raber got into the act, sticking to her defensive assignment of Union’s outside shooters in the final minute of the first half to keep the Lady Bulldogs from padding their 5-point halftime lead.
Chan finished with game-highs of 23 points and 17 rebounds for Union, which got 17 points from Hudson and her impressive 5-trey display. No other Union player reached double figures, including Kayla Bryant, who was 3-of-5 on 3-pointers in the first half but was held scoreless after halftime.
Azusa Pacific was out-rebounded by 7 in the first half but still won the overall rebounding battle with a 23-14 margin on the boards in the second half. The Cougars were an identical 12-for-26 from the field in both halves, a 46 percent clip, while Union’s offense struggled to find its rhythm against the aggressive Azusa Pacific press. The Lady Bulldogs shot 39 percent (22-for-57) for the game, spending both halves under 40 percent from the field.
With the win, Azusa Pacific finishes the year with a 33-5 overall record, while the loss was just the second of the year for Union, which finished 35-2 and had its 12-game overall and 14-game national tournament winning streaks snapped with its first loss in the national tournament since 2008.
All-Tournament First Team
Meribeth Boehler, Freed-Hardeman (Tenn.)
Sarah Chan, Union (Tenn.)
Kayla Hudson, Union (Tenn.)
Eboni Sadler, Azusa Pacific (Calif.)
Whitney Ballinger, Campbellsville (Ky.)
All-Tournament Second Team
Ashley Rainey, Lindsey Wilson (Ky.)
Natalie Shumpert, Freed-Hardeman (Tenn.)
Abby Ballman, Shawnee State (Ohio)
Briana Hall, Azusa Pacific (Calif.)
Alex Moore-Porter, Azusa Pacific (Calif.)
Maria Bagwell, Freed-Hardeman (Tenn.)
Most Valuable Player Meribeth Boehler, Freed-Hardeman (Tenn.)
2011 NAIA Division I Women’s Basketball Co-National Player of the Year
Whitney Ballinger, Campbellsville (Ky.)
Maribeth Boehler, Freed-Hardeman (Tenn.)
NAIA Coach of the Year
T.J. Hardeman, Azusa Pacific (Calif.)