FRANKFORT, Ky.-- There’s no substitute for experience in tournament play and thankfully for 9th-ranked Azusa Pacific its senior stars Amber Williams and Briana Hall have that in spades. The duo, which is already part of the winningest senior class in program history, calmly came through with crunch-time free throws to hold off a late Shawnee State run as the Cougars advanced to the quarterfinals of the NAIA Division I Women’s Basketball Championship Tournament with a 67-61 win on Friday morning.
Azusa Pacific, the 3-seed, had led by double-digits for much of the game, but an 18-3 stretch brought No. 8 Shawnee State (2-seed; 28-6) within two points with under a minute to play. In desperate need of something positive to stop the spree the Cougars looked to Williams, who delivered by burying a pair of free throws after getting fouled in the key. Then, after the Bears again cut the deficit to two points, Hall repeated her Wednesday heroics by hitting two more clutch shots from the charity stripe before sealing the win with a steal on the other end to give the Cougar faithful in attendance a comforting sigh of relief.
“It was frustrating but I knew we weren’t going to lose. Teams come back all the time, but we just held our composure,” said Hall after Azusa Pacific nearly coughed up a 17-point second half lead. “We had to tough it out and realize we need [stay strong].”
The senior tandem combined for 37 points, with Hall registering nine dimes and Williams pulling in a game-high 16 boards despite spending the last two days on her back with the flu.
Williams, who scored 18 points on Wednesday, registered another 18 while finishing a perfect 8-for-8 from the line. She recorded her 23rd double-double of the season after opening the game on a tear, scoring eight of the team’s first 10 points as the go-to player from the start.
“We had a first-team all-American down there so we gave her the ball and things changed from there,” said head coach T.J. Hardeman.
To make Williams’ performance even more impressive is the fact that she’s been battling flu-like symptoms and wasn’t sure how much she’d be able to give. But the senior, who will tie the record for most games ever played in program history (140) on Saturday, excelled as she reached the 15-rebound mark for the 12th time this season.
“I felt way better, I was able to breathe. I came prepared, I got a lot of rest yesterday, and I was ready to go. Winning was the only option,” said Williams.
Fellow senior Hall, who almost single-handedly got Azusa Pacific past MidAmerica Nazarene in the first round, was spectacular again. She led the Cougars in scoring and ended Shawnee State’s upset bid with four free throws and a steal down the stretch.
“I was just happy that our seniors have been in that situation before,” said Hardeman. “It makes everyone feel more confident when Bri’s on the line. She was huge for us and has been all year.”
The Cougars (26-7) shot 42.4 percent from the floor in the first half, but had a 32.3 percent clip showing in the second as the Bears outscored them 33-30. Azusa Pacific dominated the glass, out rebounding Shawnee State (28-6) 44-45, which included 20 offensive boards; leading to 16 second-chance points. Hannah Kenny, who has made her mark as a spark off the bench, led all players with five offensive rebounds and scored eight points.
Azusa Pacific also scored 19 points off turnovers after the Cougars got the Bears to cough it up 18 times, thanks in large part to Amanda Sims’ game-high four steals. Sims pulled in five rebounds and scored seven points, while Maddy Barrett drained two of the Cougars’ four triples to finish with seven points and six rebounds.
Shawnee State opened things up with a 11-4 run to take its largest lead of the game. But the Cougars battled back before a 16-0 spurt ignited by a Maddy Barrett trey midway through the first half put Azusa Pacific in front with a 35-20 advantage. The Cougars eventually went into the break up 37-28.
Then Azusa Pacific appeared to be in cruise control as the Cougars held a 58-41 lead with 6:57 to play. But the Bears chipped away in an 18-3 run that saw Azusa Pacific make just one field goal and commit three turnovers. Shawnee State got within two points at 61-59 at the 1:08 mark after Abby Ballman scored on a put back. Williams pushed it back to four with a pair of free throws, but Alannah Sheets found Tabby McKinney under the basket to again cut the deficit two at 63-61.
After a pair of fouls put Azusa Pacific in the bonus Wednesday’s hero, Hall, went to the line and drained two from the charity stripe to make it a two possession game. On the ensuing play Hall picked off a pass from Sheets before going to the line to seal the 67-61 win.
Both teams did well at the line as Azusa Pacific went 15-for-17 in the contest and the Bears hit 12-of-15. Schera Sampson led the way for Shawnee State with 23 points, while McKinney pulled in a team-high 10 rebounds. Ballman and Sheets each finished in double-digits.
With the win No. 9 Azusa Pacific moves on to its third straight quartefinal where the Cougars will meet up with the tournament’s top-seeded Oklahoma City. The game is slated to tipoff at 2 p.m. (EDT) on Saturday afternoon. The Stars defeated Westminster (Utah) 76-47 on Friday morning.