AZUSA, Calif.-- In a season with so many highs and lows, Saturday night may have topped them all.
Just two nights ago the Azusa Pacific women’s basketball team laid an egg in its worst performance of the season, falling to California Baptist 76-51 to eliminate itself from conference contention. But on senior night the Cougars showed the good side of their schizophrenic selves, upending No. 24 (NCAA Division II) Grand Canyon (Ariz.) 63-57 to ruin the Antelopes’ hopes of a Pacific West Conference championship. The win assured Azusa Pacific of a home game with Point Loma in the opening round of the NCCAA West Region championships on Tuesday night, and gives CBU the outright PacWest championship.
Azusa Pacific and GCU went back in forth over the latter part of the second half, and grabbed the lead for good on a huge 3-pointer from Maddy Barrett with 1:30 to go. The ‘Lopes got within two points before the Cougars made all four of their free-throw attempts in the final minute of action to come away with the victory.
“It’s kind of the beauty of college sports. To be so bad one night, and for 18-19 year-olds to be resilient and put that behind them and play hard is really something. I wasn’t positive we could do that because it was tough on Thursday,” said head coach T.J. Hardeman.
“I think we wanted to fight hard. And that probably comes from the embarrassment we had on Thursday night. We didn’t even talk about being the spoiler. We weren’t playing for a title, but we’ve been practicing all year and we didn’t want to just stop playing hard.”
Azusa Pacific hit 46 percent of its shots, and went 22-of-28 from the line, getting 24 points from freshman Kelly Hardeman after the forward drained all 12 of her looks from the stripe. The last time these two teams played Grand Canyon had its way with the Cougars, holding Azusa Pacific to 24 percent shooting, and out-rebounding Azusa Pacific 51-32.
Hannah Kenny scored 11, and Barrett added 10 points and four rebounds. The Cougars out-rebounded the much-taller Grand Canyon lineup, pulling in 40 off the glass compared to 28 for GCU.
“We talked about being physical and aggressive. Last time we played them they outrebounded us by a million, and tonight we won the battle on the boards. We’ve had a history of playing hard, and I wanted us to continue that,” said Hardeman.
Sullivan Ziegler dished out a game-high 11 assists, and added 10 points to grab the lone double-double of the night. She also grabbed five boards and logged a pair of steals. The Cougars were sloppy on the offensive end, giving the ball up 20 times, leading to 18 points for GCU.
The Grand Canyon offense made five more field goals, but got to the line just 14 times, compared to 28 for the Cougars. Azusa Pacific was the aggressor all game, and outscored GCU by 15 points from the charity stripe after a concerted effort to take the ball to the rim.
The game had six lead changes, and six ties, with each team alternating leads in the final 10 minutes of play. In the last five minutes there were four lead changes and four ties.
Barrett turned a tie game into a three-point lead for the Cougars with her third trey of the year with 1:40 to go, draining a shot free-throw line extended from the right side off a Hardeman pass. Minutes earlier GCU’s Chigize Ekweozor knotted the game at 54-54 on a free throw after Ziegler gave the Cougars a 54-53 edge on a pair of makes from the line.
Judy Jones put Grand Canyon up 53-52 on a driving lay-in from the left side, giving the potential PacWest player of the year 21 points on the night. Two Hardeman free throws put the Cougars ahead with 3:50 to go after Justine Johnson nailed a triple to put the Antelopes up 51-50 at the 4:43 mark.
The Cougars led by as many as seven in the second half, taking a 41-34 advantage on a Barrett layup with 14:20 to play after Calli Jackson nailed a jumper in the key to make it a 39-32 game with just over 15 minutes on the clock.
In the first half Grand Canyon led by as many as six points, and took its first lead of the game on a lay-in at 9:38. The ‘Lopes held the advantage for five minutes before Azusa Pacific reclaimed the edge, and went into the break with a 30-26 lead.
The victory secures a home game for the Cougars in the NCCAA Regional, setting up a Tuesday night clash with Point Loma. The two teams split their regular season meetings, with each program winning at home. The tip is slated for 7:30 p.m., but may be moved up to 5:30 p.m. depending on the men’s playoff seeding.