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Heart Of A Champion

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Photo by Chris Baker
Briana Hall refused to let the Cougars lose, scoring 21 points over the final 25 minutes of Azusa Pacific's first round win over MidAmerica Nazarene.

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March 14, 2012
Chris Baker
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FRANKFORT, Ky.-- Briana Hall was determined to make sure that today’s first round game against MidAmerica Nazarene (Kan.) in the NAIA Division I Women’s Basketball Championship wouldn’t be her last. With four seconds on the clock and Azusa Pacific trailing by two points the senior guard nailed a pair of clutch free throws to push the game to overtime before the Cougars clinched its spot in the second round with a 77-72 win over the Pioneers.

Behind Hall's courageous effort Azusa Pacific (25-7), which hadn’t been in control all day, found a way to overcome a dreadful first half that saw the Pioneers shoot at a 50 percent clip compared to the Cougars’ .316 percent (12-of-38) mark from the floor.

After going into the opening break down 37-27, thanks to a buzzer-beating layup by Hall, the Cougars wiped away a 10-point deficit by opening the second half on a 17-7 run, which included a 9-0 stretch out of the gate. Azusa Pacific grabbed its first lead since holding a 10-7 advantage at the 14-minute mark in the first half after Hall buried two from the stripe to make it 46-44 Cougars.

Following a Pioneer run later in the half the Cougars trailed 61-55 with six minutes on the clock. But an Azusa Pacific basket and a huge Katie Powell triple made it a two-point game (62-60). Then with two minutes to play Hannah Kenny hit a 5-foot jumper before taking a charge on the other end to keep the Pioneers’ lead at 66-64.

With less than 40 seconds left in the game the Cougars were in dire straits as MidAmerica Nazarene had the ball and a 68-66 lead. But Amber Williams, who was playing sick, gave Azusa Pacific life with a steal in the paint. The senior found Kenny before Kenny got it to Hall at the top of the key. After a cross-over near the elbow Hall drove the right side of the lane with the clock winding down just before getting to the line to send the game to overtime.

In the extra frame the Pioneers struck first, but Azusa Pacific would go on a 9-2 run over the rest of the period to take home a dramatic 77-72 first round win.

“I really thought it showed senior leadership and mental toughness when we passed them and they passed us and then we went back and passed them again in overtime,” said head coach T.J. Hardeman. “That first win is so hard. They were good; well-balanced and well coached. They were tough and we knew that going in.”

Hall finished with a career-high 32 points and 10 assists and was the driving force all game in Azusa Pacific’s improbable win. At one point in the second half she scored seven unanswered points to wipe away a Pioneer lead and give the Cougars a 49-44 advantage. The point guard registered 21 points in the second half and overtime despite picking up her fourth foul with over six minutes to play in regulation.

“I didn’t want to lose the game so it motivated me to push harder on the court. I realize every single game I play can be the last game of my college career. I didn’t want to lose, so we pushed together in the second half,” said Hall.

Hall, who had no trouble creasing the Pioneer defense, got to the line 11 times and hit each and every one. The point guard also took care of the ball, committing just one turnover as the Cougars recorded a season-low four giveaways.

“She was awesome She definitely is hitting the peak of her game. She’s been playing great down the stretch,” said Hardeman. “That’s senior leadership. With the game on the line there’s no one else I wanted there but her.”

And while Hall put together one the most impressive performances in her storied career, fellow senior Williams battled through illness to put up 22 points, 14 of which came in the final 25 minutes. Williams pulled in eight off the glass and tacked on two steals, while Kenny grabbed a team-high 11 rebounds in the win.

The Cougars, who were out boarded by seven in the first half, pulled in 27 second half rebounds to come away with a plus-three disparity on the glass; helping Azusa Pacific to an extra 15 field goal attempts in the game (80-65). The 80 attempts marked a season-high.

Amanda Sims tallied five points, while playing over 43 minutes and Maddy Barrett contributed with seven points and four rebounds. The Pioneers, who were making their first appearance in the tournament, had a balanced attack as four of their starters finished in double-digits with the fifth registering eight points. Kiley Herold and Daria Sprew had 14 apiece, while point guard Navia Palu led the team in rebounds (8) and assists (7).

With the win the 3rd-seeded Cougars play 2nd-seeded Shawnee State on Friday at 9 a.m. (EST) in the two programs’ first ever match up.