AZUSA, Calif.-- Giving up a 19-point second half typically isn’t the best recipe for success. But on Saturday it sure was a good thing for the fans, and a dramatic Cougar victory.
The Azusa Pacific women’s basketball team gave up a 32-10 Dixie State (Utah) run to trail by as many as three points late, but responded with a 10-0 spree to close the game en route to its fourth straight win, a 66-59 victory over the Red Storm (7-8, 5-2 PWC). Dixie State grabbed a 59-56 lead with 2:50 to play before Kelly Hardeman tied it up with her third 3-pointer of the game. On the following possession, with the score knotted at 59-59, Maddy Barrett chased down an offensive rebound, and Amanda Sims buried a deep trey to give Azusa Pacific the lead for good.
The win was the team’s sixth in the last eight games, and lifts the Cougars’ record (6-6, 3-1 PWC) back to .500 after opening the year 0-4. The victory was also the second in the last four games where Sims hit a clutch shot late to propel the Cougars to a win.
“It’s kind of funny because the possession before coach pulled me aside and told me to shoot the ball,” said Sims, who nailed the game-winning jumper in the team’s 55-54 defeat of Cal Poly Pomona. “So the next play down I was wide open and shot it. That shot was the deepest, biggest pressure shot of the day, but it felt the loosest. I’m just happy we won. They’re a really good team, and it’s good for us to win at home before we go on the road for some really tough games.”
Sims finished with 17 points and three assists in 36 minutes of play, and added four steals on the defensive end as the Cougars continued to wreak havoc with their full-court press. Azusa Pacific, which had given up an average of 49.6 points per game in its last seven games, forced 26 turnovers, including 15 in the first half when the Cougars built a 40-27 halftime lead.
Dixie State, which was coming off a heartbreaking 73-71 double overtime loss to 19th ranked (NCAA II) Grand Canyon (Ariz.), looked lethargic for the majority of the opening frame, something Azusa Pacific exploited early and often with their defensive pressure.
“They’re big. We knew if it was a wrestling match we were going to lose. So we wanted to make it more of a track meet and pressure. I was happy we were able to be successful in that way. It’s been nice to see us play and have a good concept of what we’re trying to do,” said head coach T.J. Hardeman. “Our energy didn’t depend on them. We played with high energy and they weren’t ready to do that in the first half.”
The Cougars scored 23 points off of 26 Red Storm turnovers, and got two or more steals from each of their five starters. Azusa Pacific shot just 32.8 percent from the floor, and went just 6-of-25 from 3-point range, but held a 10-point advantage at the free throw line. Dixie State shot 6-for-12 from the charity stripe, while the Cougars went 16-of-21. Hannah Kenny’s 12-of-14 performance from the line led to another monster game, helping her score a game-high 18 points while pulling in a season-high 14 rebounds to post her third double-double in the last for contests.
Hardeman finished with 15 points, and Sullivan Ziegler added six points, five rebounds, and four assists. Barrett had her second consecutive 10-rebound game after the sophomore grabbed a game-high six offensive boards, including a crucial offensive rebound in the go-ahead possession.
Dixie State had only one player finish in double-figures, with Kaylah Miller leading the way with 12 points. The Red Storm’s top scorer, Johnna Brown, was limited to nine points and eight turnovers.
The Cougars’ intensity was apparent from the opening whistle, with Azusa Pacific sprinting out to a 16-4 lead just three minutes into the game thanks to baskets from all five starters. Dixie State stormed back with seven straight points to cut the deficit from 12 to five, but the Cougars responded with a 6-0 run.
Azusa Pacific again did a good job of establishing the post, scoring 18 points in the paint in the opening 20 minutes to take a 40-27 lead into halftime. The Cougars scored 14 points off turnovers in the frame, and had 10 points apiece from Hardeman and Kenny at the break.
In the second half the Cougars scored five quick points to establish its largest lead of the afternoon when they went ahead 46-27 on a Barrett lay-in. Dixie State responded with a triple from Shannon Gough before Kenny scored on a jumper off a pass from Barrett. The bucket would be the Cougars’ last field goal in over seven minutes of play as Dixie State raced back with a 17-0 run in a span of just four minutes.
Erica Hayes kicked off the spree with a lay-in, followed by a Brown bucket. Brown buried a jumper and Kirsten Liana hit back-to-back shots to make it a 48-41 game. Rachael Sprinks hit a jumper, and Kaylah Miller drained a trey to cut Azusa Pacific’s lead to 48-47 at the 12:07 mark. A pair of free throws from Kenny ended the drought, and pushed the edge to three points, but Sprinks pulled Dixie State back to within a point on another jumper.
Sims’ 3-pointer put Azusa Pacific up 53-49, but a 6-0 Red Storm run gave Dixie State its first lead since opening the game with a basket. The two teams traded the next three baskets, with a Sims free throw mixed in as the Red Storm held a 59-56 lead with just under three minutes to go.
On the next Cougar possession Ziegler found Hardeman for a 3-pointer, and Kenny made a great defensive play on the other end to secure a steal, giving the Azusa Pacific the ball with the game tied 59-59, and setting up Sims’ game-winner. After the make Dixie State failed to score on two consecutive possessions, before Kenny sealed the victory with four straight free throws.
The victory improved the Cougars’ record to 4-1 at home, and 3-1 in PacWest play. The loss was just Dixie State’s second in conference action after the Red Storm opened with a 5-0 start. On tap for the Cougars is a brutal road stint that begins with California Baptist on Tuesday night. Azusa Pacific will then travel to Phoenix for a tilt against the Antelopes before again squaring off with Dixie State in St. George, Utah on Jan. 26.