AZUSA, Calif.-- They’ve come back before, but Tuesday night’s 64-56 NCCAA West Region first round win over Point Loma was a little different. After trailing by 16 points late in the first half, unassuming senior Morgann Ellis stepped into an unusual role. The sharpshooter, who was playing her final minutes in the Felix Event Center, took control of the game, nailing three 3-pointers in the final four minutes of the frame to key a 12-0 Cougar-run and shave Azusa Pacific’s deficit to four points.
Fast-forward to late in the second half, already after the guard posted a career-high in points, Ellis intercepted a Sea Lion pass, calmly made her way down the court, and converted a fast break right-handed lay-in to give the Cougars their first lead of the night. Azusa Pacific wouldn’t relinquish the advantage, holding on for a come-from-behind victory to advance to the NCCAA West Region championship against California Baptist on Thursday night.
“I didn’t want to lose...we had to win. It was my last game here, and it felt good to come out on top with a win, knowing that I played well to help the team,” said Ellis, who poured in a game-high 17 points on five 3-pointers. “They were giving me wide opens shots so I was just taking advantage and hitting them. It felt good. It was really exciting. It gave the team a spark of energy.”
The Cougars held a lead for just over two minutes in the game, and trailed by double-figures in both halves. But a blitzing pair of Cougar runs, keyed by clutch-shooting and an opportunistic Azusa Pacific defense, turned out to be the difference.
Ellis was vital in both of the runs, scoring nine points in a 12-0 spurt to end the opening half, before giving Azusa Pacific its first lead of the game on a fast break layup in a 17-5 spree to end the game. She scored seven points down the stretch as the Cougars went ahead by as many as 11 points.
“Morgann was awesome. We talk a lot about being ready to play and she was when we called on her. Tonight we were struggling and she came through for us. I thought the play of the game was her steal and layup. It was the first time we had the lead and it was a huge point in the game for us,” said head coach T.J. Hardeman.
The Cougars’ offense was far from polished, committing 17 turnovers and missing out on numerous inside looks to finish with a 33.3 percent shooting clip. But when they needed the points, Azusa Pacific found a way to finish.
“Maybe it’s not a good thing, but we’ve been down before. When we looked up and saw that it was only 16 points we knew we could make a run,” said Hardeman after his team alleviated its shooting woes with 25 offensive rebounds. “The rebounding speaks to the character of this team. They weren’t hitting shots, but they played hard and chased down the ball. That kept us in the game.”
The Cougars registered 13 second-chance points, and out-boarded Point Loma by 23 (53-30). They also made the most of the Sea Lions’ mistakes, converting 16 turnovers into 24 points.
Kelly Hardeman had an off-night from deep, draining only two of her 11 shots from beyond the arc, but still managed to finish with a double-double. The freshman scored 14 points, and pulled in 10 rebounds, six on the offensive end, to go with a game-high four blocks. Hannah Kenny also tabbed a double-double, her ninth of the season, with 10 points and 11 boards.
Maddy Barrett made only one basket, but it was a big one, scoring on a pull-up fast break jumper just inside the free throw line in the Cougars’ run to end the first half. Barrett finished with five points, and totaled eight rebounds, three assists, and two steals. Sophomore point guard Sullivan Ziegler finished with four points, four assists, and five boards.
In the closing minutes Point Loma was holding onto five-point edge with 6:36 to play. The Cougars trimmed it to two points on an Ellis 3-pointer, and tied it up at 53-53 after grabbing two offensive rebounds, and getting a floater in the lane from Hardeman.
Then, with 2:13 on the clock Ellis stepped into the passing lane, stole an errant pass and scored on a layup to make it 55-53. The senior continued the run, burying a 3-pointer from the top of the key to put Azusa Pacific ahead 58-53, before Ziegler closed the game with four of the final six free throws.
Tianna Jones gave Azusa Pacific its first tie of the second half on a fast break bucket with 10:57 to play, but the Sea Lions quickly reassumed the lead on the ensuing possession.
Towards the end of the first half Point Loma took advantage of an awful five-minute stretch of offensive play from the Cougars with a 13-1 run to grab a 35-19 lead with 3:52 remaining on the clock. Ellis ignited a rally, sandwiching a Kenny free throw with a pair of 3-pointers to cut Point Loma’s lead to single-digits. Barrett’s jumper made it a 35-29 game, and Ellis’ triple with 35 seconds left brought the Cougars to within four at the half.
The come-back victory was just the latest in a season that has seen the Cougars rise to the occasion when put against the wall. The team opened the year with a 2-6 mark, but crawled back to .500 with four consecutive wins. Then, Azusa Pacific overcame scares in back-to-back games, defeating Notre Dame de Namur after trailing in the second half, and erasing a 14-point deficit against Academy of Art. Azusa Pacific closed the regular season with an upset over the 24th ranked team in Division II, ending Grand Canyon’s hopes of a Pacific West Conference title in a 63-57 win to close the season with a 15-10 record.
The Cougars will advance to face California Baptist for a shot at the National Christian College Athletics Association national championships in Winona Lake, Ind. from March 13-16. Azusa Pacific is 0-2 against the Lancers this season, and were embarrassed by CBU in a 76-51 loss last Thursday night. The Cougars, did, however, take CBU to overtime in a 67-65 loss in Riverside on Jan. 15. Thursday night’s tip is set for 5 p.m.