No. 9 Azusa Paific vs. No. 21 MidAmerica Nazarene, 12 p.m. (EST)
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FRANKFORT, Ky.-- On Wednesday at noon (EST) No. 9 ranked Azusa Pacific kicks off the final stage of its title defense with a first round matchup against No. 21 MidAmerica Nazarene (Kan.) in the NAIA championship tournament. The Cougars (24-7), who won the program’s first NAIA title last year, are making their ninth straight appearance, while the Pioneers (25-8) claimed their inaugural trip to the dance with a Heart of America Athletic Conference tournament win over Graceland (Iowa).
For Azusa Pacific its tourney bid marks the program’s 14th all-time appearance, but even though the Cougars are no stranger to playing in March, this year’s tournament has a slightly different feel than last season’s magical run. Now playing with the target on their back, head coach T.J. Hardeman has to find a way to navigate the Cougars through the bracket with just one returning starter, Briana Hall.
And even though Hall is the program’s all-time assist leaders, and will go down as one of the best to ever suit up as a Cougar, the team had serious questions entering the season. Azusa Pacific lost four starters off of its championship team, and only five current players that notch significant time (5+ minutes per game) helped the team bring the banner back to Azusa in 2011.
But things turned out well as first year starter Amber Williams, who was a major role player as a junior, put together one of the program’s most impressive campaigns as she registered 22 double-doubles and broke the single-season rebounding record (408). She earned three GSAC Player of the Week awards and was twice named the NAIA Player of the Week.
With the other three starting positions open the Cougars got some unexpected help. Rebecca Roehrkasse was recruited out of intramurals, Amanda Sims transferred in from Long Beach State, and Maddy Barrett came into her own quickly as a true freshman. Barrett ranked second on the team in rebounding (7.0) and tied a freshman single-game record with 19 boards against San Diego Christian, while Sims was the Cougars outside threat, leading the team with 49 treys. Roehrkasse, who has been hot down the stretch, finished the year averaging 8.0 points and 4.5 rebounds to go with a .443 clip from the floor.
Off the bench Azusa Pacific added freshman Katie Powell to a group of returnees that have been vital to the Cougars’ success this season. Hannah Kenny filled in nicely off the pine, and was one of the most efficient players, scoring 3.4 points on .544 shooting from the floor. She also was tough on the glass, collecting 3.4 boards a game in just under 11 minutes a night. Fellow forward Jasmyn Reed gave opposing posts fits on defensive and ended the year as the Cougars’ No. 2 shot-blocker. Cherie Hughes spelled Hall off the bench, and gave Azusa Pacific senior leadership in the back court and in the locker room.
But even with the high turnover, Hardeman and his team found a way to get a new set of players into the field of 32 with a shot at a repeat, something no Golden State Athletic Conference team has done before.
And to add to the unfamiliarity this year’s NAIA tournament venue switches from Oman Arena in Jackson, Tenn. to the Frankfort Convention Center in Kentucky; breaking a 22-year span of championships hosted by Jackson. But even with a rebuilt team and a new venue the Cougars, who’ve made two straight title-game trips, are hoping for the similar results.
“It’s definitely different...We were very much at home in Tennessee. I’m sure it will be great here, but we don’t know the area yet,” said Hardeman.
The team traveled to Kentucky earlier this season in hopes to prepare for the tournament as they played road games at Campbellsville and Lindsey Wilson in November. Unfortunately the Cougars lost both games by double digits.
“That’s why we came to Kentucky, to get two losses out of our system,” joked Hardeman. “But we just wanted to get accustomed to playing in this time zone so when we come a second time we know exactly what to do.”
And if Azusa Pacific keeps doing what it’s been doing then another deep run is on the horizon. Over the last 10 games the Cougars have dropped just one, losing the GSAC final to a Westmont team they beat by 12 on Feb. 25. Azusa Pacific had posted seven consecutive double-digit wins before falling to the Warriors, and has won six games against teams in this year’s tournament.
But all of that can quickly come to an end in the first round as the Cougars face a dangerous MidAmercia Nazarene team stormed through the HAAC postseason tournament to earn its first ever NAIA bid.
The Pioneers, who rank 9th in the NAIA in assists, present a balanced attack led by forward Daria Sprew, who finished the season with four double-doubles and an average of 11.4 points per game. Sophomore forward Rachel Boan scored 9.9 points a night during the season, while point guard Navia Palu paced the Pioneers with 3.1 assists.
“It’s tough, any team can beat any team at this level and you see it every year,” said Hardeman. “We’ve done what we can to prepare and we feel like we’re playing well. We’re where we want to be right now, but that doesn’t guarantee we’re going to play great. We need to continue to play the way we’ve been playing.”
Whether or not this new group of players in this new venue will produce the same result as the Cougars’ previous teams have is still up in the air. But if only one thing about this tournament is certain, Azusa Pacific isn’t resting on last year’s laurels.
“I don’t think we look at ourselves differently after winning the national championship,” said Hardeman. “I’m sure that’s added to other teams’ fuel, but if that’s pumping you up more, well good for you. I think you have to be pumped every time you play at this level.”