SANTA BARBARA, Calif.-- The NAIA's top-ranked Azusa Pacific dropped its first game of the season, 68-64, to Westmont (7-1) in the GSAC opener on Tuesday night.
The Cougars (4-1) led by as many as 13 in the second half and didn't trail in the game until there was 5:20 to go, but Westmont's resiliency and clutch shooting proved to be the difference maker in a thrilling GSAC opening game.
Amanda Sims scored a team-high 18 points on 8-12 shooting as Azusa Pacific shot 46.9 percent from the field compared to Westmont’s 36.2. The Warriors also outscored the Cougars 40-28 in the second half to register the comeback win.
“We played very good in some spots but we just didn’t sustain our efforts.”, said Head Coach TJ Hardeman. “It’s always tough to beat good teams on their home floor. They’re a top-10 team in the country and they made some big shots. Tonight just wasn’t meant to be.”
The Cougars started strong and grabbed an early 7-point lead after Maddy Barrett buried a jumper to make it 11-4 with 14 minutes left in the first half.
The Warriors, however, fought back and went on an 8-2 run, capped by Aubrey Lincoln’s 3-pointer with 12:25 on the clock. But on the next possession freshman guard Katie Powell buried a jumper to give the Cougars a 16-12 advantage.
From there Azusa Pacific would run the lead to as many as 12 at the 4:23 mark when Tianna Jones scored her first field goal of the game after sinking two free throws on the previous possession. The Cougars went into the break up 36-28 after hitting 57.7 percent of their shots compared to the Warrions 35.7.
Azusa Pacific led by as many as 13 in the second half but the Warriors kept crawling back into it. The lead dropped to eight, before dwindling down to three before Wetmont’s Tugce Canitez hit a 3-pointer with 6:07 on the clock. Westmont eventually took first lead of second half at 56-55 after Azusa Pacific couldn’t rebound Katie Kittle’s missed free throw and a subsequent shot and sent Kittle back to the line. On the next possession the Cougars went to their anchor, Amber Williams, who was fouled in the post. She hit both free throws to take back the lead, but Westmont would continue to scrap.
On the following possession Canitez made a quick move in the post and extended towards the rim to take back the lead for the Warrios at 58-57 with 4:38 to go.
The home team scored again on a layup down the middle by Kittle to extend lead to 60-57. On the ensuing play Jones was fouled as she tried to break, and hit on of two free throws. After back to back failed possessions Jones again beat the defender and drove towards the left baseline and was fouled on her attempt. The sophomore hit both free throws to tie it up with just under three minutes remaining.
But Westmont’s resiliency continued to show as they took back the advantage on another Kittles’ layup. Westmont added to the lead with a free throw to put the Warriors ahead, 63-60 with 2:34 on the clock.
But the back-and-forth action continued on the resulting play as Briana Hall recovered an errant pass from Rebecca Roehrkasse near midcourt and drove down the left side of the lane to make it 62-63.
After getting the ball back the Cougars went to Roehrkasse. Situated on the right side of the key, the junior took two dribbles and hit a beautiful pull-up jumper along the baseline to give Azusa Pacific back the lead at 64-63, forcing Westmont to call timeout with 1:23 to play.
On the next play the Warriors gave it to Erin Beadle, who was fouled by Hall in the key. The Warrior, scoreless in the game to that point, was clutch as she hit two free throws to make it 65-64 Westmont at with under a minute left in regulation.
Following a Cougar timeout Hall’s pass was intercepted by Lisa Peterson, who was then fouled on a questionable call putting her at the line with just 22 ticks left. Peterson missed the first free throw, but made the second to make it 66-64.
Hardeman called another timeout to draw up a play. After the Cougars passed it around, Roehrkasse was left open at the top of the key, but her 3-pointer was off the mark forcing Azusa Pacific to foul; sending Vanessa Farias to the line with just 3.7 seconds left needing to sink both free throws to seal the upset. Farias delivered on the first, and again on the second to give Azusa Pacific its first loss of the young season with a final score of 68-64.
Azusa Pacific had its 15-game GSAC winning streak snapped, but have a chance to start a new one on Saturday against Hope International.
“The mark of a good team is bouncing back,” said Hardeman. “You obviously want to win these types of games, but there are some good things to take out of it.”