Last year, Cougar Athletics counted down the last 30 days of summer with the Cougar Countdown blog series, which contained 30 items of interest to Cougar fans leading into the 2012-13 school year. For the summer of 2013, Cougar Athletics takes a look back with a ranking of Azusa Pacific’s top 13 teams of all-time, which was compiled by the office of Sports Information with input from current and past coaches and administrators. The top 13 teams in Cougar Athletics history will be revealed one at a time each Thursday throughout the summer, culminating with the No. 1 team on August 21.
The countdown continues with the No. 8 team:
2010-11 Azusa Pacific Women’s Basketball
Golden State Athletic Conference Champions
Final NAIA ranking: 3rd
Postseason: NAIA National Champions
In 2011 the Azusa Pacific women’s basketball team won the program’s first-ever NAIA national championship, avenging a title game loss to Union (Tenn.) with a 65-59 victory over the two-time champions at Oman Arena in Jackson, Tenn. Not bad for a program that hadn’t won back-to-back NAIA tournament games in its history prior to 2010.
The ascent towards its championship run didn’t involve some secret recipe, magic slogan, or riveting motivational speech. It was the quiet confidence of a simple challenge to think bigger. Much bigger. In 2007, when Cougar head women’s basketball coach T.J. Hardeman took the reins of a program that finished in the top-three of the GSAC in 10 of the past 14 years with three league championships, he calmly told his team that he not only wants to win national championships, but he expects to.
“Having been around, with daughters that played in the GSAC, I realized that (a championship) didn't have to be a pipe dream for Azusa Pacific. It shouldn’t be something that sat out there as a lofty goal, because I truly felt that is was an attainable goal,” said Hardeman, who coached the women’s team at Hope International before his time with the Cougars. “It takes a lot of years to build a great program and there have been a lot of great players and coaches that built a great foundation, and I wanted to build off of that, to take that next step. I remember when I told the girls I wanted to win a national championship, it sort of shocked all of them.”
The methodical, incremental climb towards national prowess began in his first season, when Hardeman guided the Cougars to the NAIA tournament, where they bowed out in the first round against Wiley (Tex.). The following year, headed by freshman point guard, Briana Hall, and a high scoring sophomore Alex Moore-Porter Azusa Pacific went 23-11, beat Southern Nazarene (Okla.) in the first round of the tournament, and was one tough call away from reaching its first quarterfinal appearance in a 73-70 second round loss to Lambuth (Tenn.).
“Those first two years sort of set the stage. We had a lot of talent, and I think if we found a way to win our second round game we could have made it all the way,” said Hardeman.
But in 2010 Azusa Pacific made its biggest leap when the Cougars reached their first-ever title game. But a 73-65 loss to Union put the dream on hold, with all five starters returning for the 2010-11 campaign.
Armed with the most talented team in Cougar history, each with one goal in mind, the Cougars went on to produce the highest scoring offense in program history in a record-breaking season that seemed destined for greatness from the very beginning.
“That year, from day one we wanted to get back and win it. That was what really put us over the edge. There’s something about working for a goal you know that’s hard, but within your grasp. It’s hard, but it’s there. There was that awful feeling when we lost the title game to Union. So we said, hey, we’re going to have everyone back and we’re coming back to get that banner,” said Hardeman.
Everything was in the right place for the Cougars’ 2011 run. They had a lineup that boasted an unmatched arsenal, with five players that were members of the Cougars’ 1,000 point club by seasons end (no other team in Cougars history had more than two). They could score from anywhere, with anyone. Moore-Porter, Azusa Pacific’s first-ever three-time NAIA All-American, ended her career with the highest scoring average in team history (18.0). Michelle Byrd, and C.J. Hill each averaged double-figures in 2010, and Kristie Hala’ufia and Amber Williams gave Azusa Pacific the NAIA’s best set of twin towers.
“What made that team so good was that we had so many different weapons and we had players willing to accept roles in order to be champions. Any of them could be scoring leaders at other schools, so for them to sacrifice personal glory for the team is really indicative of their character,” said Hardeman.
The numerous threats were perfect for Hall, who had the uncanny ability to find the right person at the right time in a year that she set the program-record for assists (228) on a team that averaged 76.8 points per game.
“Her ability to get the ball to the right person at the right time was unmatched. When you have that many girls it’s tough to get everyone enough touches. What set her apart was knowing who and when to get the ball to. And when things broke down she could score,” said Hardeman about Hall, who ended her career as the school’s all-time leader in assists (713), and as the 7th most prolific scorer at Azusa Pacific with 1, 654 points.
But beyond the team’s unquestioned talent, was its experience together as a unit.
“Everyone understood their roles. That team had been together for a while, and in order to get five 1,000-point scorers you have to not only play for a while, but be productive. For any team to have one or two 1,000 point players is a lot, but to have five on the same court is symbolic of how good they were, and how long they’d been together,” said Azusa Pacific sports information director Joe Reinsch, who covered the women’s basketball team from 2006-2011.
But the Cougars had a potential hit to the team’s chemistry when star guard Eboni Sadler transferred from Miami (Fla.) to Azusa Pacific for the 2011 season. As the only true newcomer on a team that had grown together over the past three seasons, Sadler’s ability to fit in on a loaded team would be one of the biggest hurdles in the Cougars’ quest for a championship. And luckily for Azusa Pacific, that was Sadler’s top priority.
“The awesome thing about Eboni is that she never demanded anything. She came in knowing that we were very good, and wanted to just be a player on a really good team. She was excited because she could fit it on a talented team,” said Hardeman. “From day one she was one of the hardest workers. When you saw her on the floor she was awesome, she was an encourager. We maybe could have won it with the team as it was, but to add Eboni made us so much better.”
Sadler didn’t only fit in, but excelled, albeit after somewhat of a slow start. She was the Cougars’ No. 2 scorer (14.5 ppg), and ranked in the top-three in rebounding (5.7) and assists (1.8), and she did it in awe-striking fashion as one of the elite athletes in the NAIA. She averaged just 9.5 points through her first eight games, but took off from that point on, with seven 20-point performances, including team highs in scoring in each of the Cougars’ five NAIA tournament games.
“Athletically she was unmatched in the NAIA. But she struggled early because you could tell she didn’t want to take someone else’s role, and it took her a little while to find her place on that team. And once she did they were really tough to beat,” said Reinsch.
And while Sadler was the only new addition, she was far from the lone surprise. On a team that had just a championship in mind, players were willing to do anything to contribute. Two-year starter Hill took a reserve role to make way for Sadler, and Byrd went from an interior force to one of the nation’s top outside threats. And then you had Williams, who recorded one of the most dominating seasons in school history in 2011-12, splitting time with Hala’ufia at the center position as a junior.
“There were lots of little keys. C.J. started for two and a half years and then had to come off the bench. It showed senior maturity. She was willing to do it to win a national championship. Having Amber come off the bench was such a luxury because we didn’t lose anything when Kristie came off the court. We could ride either of those players and both were willing to give everything they’ve got. To have players that good, willing to do whatever it takes is a neat combination. And Michelle was the unsung hero of that group. When she came to Azusa Pacific she didn’t take a single 3-pointer, and her senior year she became an outside threat. She was always that person that found herself in the right place and did the intangible things for us,” said Hardeman.
Byrd shot a dazzling .462 from beyond the arc, giving opposing coaches even more headaches about game-planning to stop the Cougars with Williams and Hala’ufia combining for 16.1 points and 13 rebounds per game in the paint. Over the span of the season seven different players tabbed team-highs in scoring, and three were eventual all-GSAC honorees (Moore-Porter, Sadler, Hall).
"The core group was together for so long, that we just knew each other so well on and off the court,” Hala’ufia said. “From knowing what kind of move a player was going to make to what their favorite kind of food was, we were blessed to be together so long and know each other so completely. That really allowed us to push each other on and off the court.”
And with a group as talented as the ’11 Cougars were, the perfect complement to it all was leadership, and Azusa Pacific had that in spades in senior center Hala’ufia. A talented inside force, Hala’ufia was essential to what the Cougars wanted to do on the court. But her biggest asset may have been what she did off of it.
“To have a player like Kristie, the undisputed leader of the team, was perfect, especially with how many good players we had. She kept everyone in their roles. Her contribution was so much more than what she did on the floor. She was the players’ coach, and really incredible at helping girls stay focused and getting the whole picture of being at Azusa Pacific. She was huge with that,” said Hardeman.
While the Cougars’ mission all season long was to get back to the championship and bring home the banner, they’d have an early season shot at a slice of redemption early on in the season with a cross-country rematch with Union.
At 3-0, with a victory over consistent tournament participant Freed Hardeman, the Cougars battled with the reigning champs, but ultimately fell 61-50. It was the first of four losses in an 11-game span that dropped the Cougars’ record to 11-4 following surprising losses to Biola in the GSAC opener, and to the upstart Lancers of California Baptist in the first game of 2011.
But, as they had done before, the Cougars took the losses and learned from them. And the loss to CBU refocused the Cougars as they put together a record-tying 17 game win streak to take home the GSAC championship. Azusa Pacific reached the GSAC tournament title game against the Lancers, and fell on their home court while CBU celebrated its first-ever GSAC tournament championship in the Felix Event Center. It certainly wasn’t the way the Cougars wanted to go into the NAIA tournament, but it also didn’t keep them from finishing what they started.
“Those were some big battles with CBU. It was our last loss of the year and it was on our home court. The good thing about it is that it let us know that we could be beat. It showed that if another team gets hot in a single game our season could be over. And that really made the girls even more hungry for the tournament and taking home a championship,” said Hardeman.
After a first round blowout over Belhaven, Azusa Pacific had to battle past a tough Lindsey Wilson team in the second round, narrowly escaping with a 71-67 win. In the third round the Cougars steamrolled past Lubbock Christian 79-54, and slid by Freed Hardeman 58-46 in the semifinals to set up a rematch of the 2010 title game with Union.
“When we left that locker room in Tennessee in 2010, we knew what we had to do, and everybody who came aboard that next year knew what we were about,” said Hala’ufia. “We all had that common goal and drive to win. You can’t teach drive and passion, and what made that team very special was that each of us had it. It was icing on the cake to win the national championship, but the steps we took to get there with our teammates and coaches is what is most memorable. Even now, two years later, I still think every day about how awesome it was to be a part of that journey.”
The Cougars were right back to where they fought to be all season, just 40 minutes away from either jubilation, or disappointment in a place where their journey both began, and will ultimately end.
“I remember in the 2010 season finally getting to the championship game. It was so big. I stayed up into the wee hours in the morning trying to get the word out, and get the most publicity out that you can’t play for anything more than that. The loss was tough, and it seemed all year that they were on a mission, that they had unfinished business and that’s how they were approaching the year. So to see them even get back to that point was gratifying and impressive in its own right,” said Reinsch.
Union took a 32-27 halftime lead, and Azusa Pacific trailed by as many as seven points in the second half. But the Cougars’ refusal to again go home empty handed fueled a championship-caliber run over the final six minutes. With Union leading 53-49 the Cougars went on a 16-6 run to close out their title dreams with a 65-59 win and the long-sought banner in hand. When the clock hit zero, the girls stormed the court, unleashing three years of work into a postgame celebration that brought some of the seniors to tears.
“It was awesome. I felt like I was floating for about a month after that night. To have a season end on such a high note is rare. Usually the last game is a loss, so to have such a fun win end the season is incomparable. It was an incredible feeling and until you can experience it’s hard to understand. After we did it, the immediate thought was we need to do it again, and that’s what continues to drive me,” said Hardeman.
“The thing that comes to my mind from that night is redemption. The disappointment from the previous year had been so great that they worked the entire year to go back and win. There was unfinished business, and they went and accomplished what they fought so hard to achieve,” said Reinsch.
The 2010-11 Cougars were the most accomplished in program history. In Moore-Porter’s three seasons she accumulated 1,833 points, just 106 behind the school’s all-time record of 1,939, held by Lindsey West (’06). Williams set the single season rebounding record in 2012, and the trio of Byrd, Hill, and Williams all rank at the top for games played in team history (140). Hall is arguably the best point guard in Azusa Pacific history, Hala’ufia’s 1,703 points place her at No. 6 all-time, and Sadler and Moore-Porter each earned spots on the NAIA All-Tournament team.
But the thing that separates this group from any other isn’t what they accomplished individually, it’s what they came together to achieve. The 2010-11 women’s basketball team dreamt bigger than any had before, and was rewarded with the only NAIA basketball national championship in the celebrated history of Azusa Pacific.