AZUSA, Calif.-- They’ve been a part of this story more times than they’d like to admit. They led at Westmont by 13 in the second half, only to fall 68-64. They held a 10-point lead against Vanguard, but ended up suffering a 53-52 defeat. And possibly the most painful one was a 51-49 loss to rival Biola after leading by nine points in the second half. But on Friday the NAIA’s No. 12 ranked Azusa Pacific was able to be on the other end of the story, overcoming a seven-point deficit against No. 9 Vanguard to post a 57-54 win on Friday night.
Azusa Pacific (16-6, 9-3) out rebounded the Lions (15-5, 9-3) 55-36, led by Amber Williams who recored a game-high 20 rebounds and 17 points. Briana Hall, who missed the teams’ first meeting, made her presence known on both ends of the court. She had a game-high seven steals, and setup her teammates with five assists. The senior guard also finished with 14 points on the night.
“Sitting out and watching them lose was really hard. Winning felt great because I feel like I let my team down for sitting out [last time],” said Hall. “This is our home court, we don’t like to let anyone else claim it or take over it so we have to defend it best we can. And I think we did a good job of it.”
Azusa Pacific, which improved to 10-0 at home this year, moved into a tie with Vanguard for second place in the GSAC standings with the win. Neither team shot particularly well as the Cougars hit just 30.9 percent from the floor (21-68), while the Lions recorded a 37.3 percent clip from the field (22-59). The difference in the game, however, was the amount of opportunities Azusa Pacific got with 25 offensive rebounds and 11 steals. Madalene Barrett pulled down nine rebounds, while Hannah Kenny was again a lift off the bench; tallying five points and nine rebounds.
The turning point of the game came after Vanguard took a 42-35 edge on a 3-pointer with 11:46 to play. The basket caused head coach T.J. Hardeman to call timeout and preach defense. The result was a quick 7-0 run, capped by an Amanda Sims trey to erase the Lions’ lead in just over a minute and a half of play. From that point on Vanguard made just four of its 12 shot attempts and turned the ball over five times.
“He told us to step up defensively. We weren’t communicating well at that time, so we just talked about it and shut them down,” said Hall of Hardeman’s words during the timeout.
“The message was to get tougher defensively... being more intense,” said Hardeman. “It’s nice to see that. If we sustain that we become a very hard team to play. We could be the best team if we gave that effort for a longer period of time.”
Over the final minutes the Cougars and Lions traded baskets in a game that saw 10 ties. With Vanguard holding onto a 52-50 edge with 3:22 to play Hall hit a driving floater in the lane to knot it at 52-52. Sims then gave Azusa Pacific a 54-52 lead after Williams stole it and found her sprinting down the court for a wide open fast break layup. The junior was the third Cougar to reach double-digits, pouring in 14 points after burying three triples.
Vanguard responded with a jumper by Allison Burns, but Williams gave Azusa Pacific back the lead for good with a layup. The Lions did have a chance to take the lead with 19 seconds left when Veronica Beavor was left wide open behind the 3-point line. But her attempt barely hit the rim as Kenny pulled in the rebound before getting fouled. Kenny then went to the line and hit the front end of a double bonus to seal the team’s 57-54 win.
“It felt great. It was a good win for us to beat a team that beat us before. It was nice to see us have a concerted effort,” said Hardeman. “[Hall’s] floor-general leadership really drove us and we needed all of it. Hannah came in and was a spark off the bench, grabbing nine rebounds. It was a nice win”
Williams’ 20-rebound game was the fourth time she’s reached the 20-rebound mark this season. The center still leads the GSAC in scoring (19 points per game) and rebounding (13 rebounds per game), and has a chance to break the program’s single-season rebounding average mark.
“Rebounding was a big thing we talked about going into this game. We knew we had an edge there so I’m glad we took advantage of it,” said Williams.
Azusa Pacific still sits behind Westmont in the stagnant GSAC standings and won’t have a chance to play the Warriors until the conference finale on Feb. 25th. Next week the Cougars host Fresno Pacific on Tuesday, and travel to Concordia on Saturday.