AZUSA, Calif.-- The third time proved to be the charm for the Azusa Pacific women’s basketball team, which snapped a two-game skid against Point Loma to advance to the National Christian College Athletics Association national tournament with a 71-60 win in the NCCAA West Region championship on Tuesday night.
The Cougars, who had lost to Point Loma (18-10) by an average of 15 points in their two meetings this season, limited the sharpshooting Sea Lions to 4-of-24 shooting from beyond the arc, and withstood a pair of late runs to advance to their 14th national tournament in program history.
Point Loma twice got to within two points in the final 10 minutes, and trailed by only four points with 2:13 on the clock. But Azusa Pacific nailed seven of its eight free throws down the stretch to clinch the 11-point victory and advance to the sixth national tournament under head coach T.J. Hardeman.
“They’re a good team and we knew we had to play well to beat them. The last time we played they shot well from beyond the arc, and while they’re a good shooting team, good shooters are better when they’re open. So tonight we changed our defense up a little bit and for the most part we were able to get a hand up on shooters,” said Hardeman.
Azusa Pacific’s defense, which saw the Sea Lions shoot 9-of-15 from deep in an 82-61 loss on Feb. 22, smothered Point Loma’s shooters all night, forcing eight straight misses to open the game. The Sea Lions shot just 16.7 percent from 3-point range on Tuesday, and at one point had a 1-of-15 clip from beyond the arc. As a whole the Cougar defense held Point Loma to 38.1 percent shooting, and outside of Jessica Escorza’s 31-point, 11-of-16 performance, kept the Sea Lions’ potent offense in check.
On the offensive end Azusa Pacific boasted a balanced attack, with four players scoring in double figures, led by Allison Greene’s 19 point effort. Four of the Cougars’ five starters had 10+ points, with Kelly Hardeman, Maggie Dumphy, and Sendy Valles each pouring in 13 points. Valles and Dumphy both posted double-double performances, pulling in 12 and 10 rebounds respectively as Azusa Pacific out-rebounded Point Loma 46-32 in the game.
“We’ve been a better rebounding team, but last the time we played it was a draw on the boards. So we focused on rebounding, and we did a good job on the glass, and that really plays to our strengths,” said Hardeman. “I also thought the pace tonight was better for us. They wanted to run more than we did, so I told then team we didn’t need to go up and down the court. I wanted to set up our half-court offense because we have so many weapons that can do damage, and tonight with four players in double-digits, we saw that work to our advantage.”
Azusa Pacific led by as many 14 points, but had to hold off a resilient Point Loma team. After leading 51-40 with 10:08 to play the Sea Lions nailed a triple, and on three straight possessions a Cougar turnover turned into a Point Loma layup, cutting Azusa Pacific’s lead to two points with 7:47 to play. The Cougars answered with a turnaround jumper from Greene on the ensuing possession, but an Erin Andersen bucket off a bounce pass from Escorza cut the lead back to two points, prompting Hardeman to call a timeout.
“It was like we were playing not to lose, so in the timeout I said we have to play to win, we have to go after them. I think we came out of that more aggressive and we did a good job of finding each other from that point on,” said Hardeman.
Out of the timeout the Cougars went on a quick 8-0 run to push the lead back to 10 points after baskets from Valles, Sullivan Ziegler, Greene, and Hardeman to make it a 61-51 game with 5:08 to play. Azusa Pacific took an 11-point edge on a free throw from Dumphy with 3:30 to go, but the Sea Lions still had one more run in them, and a 7-0 spurt, with all seven points coming from Escorza, pulled Point Loma to within four points.
The Sea Lions nearly cut it to two points with a steal and fastbreak opportunity, but Hardeman chased Callie Rhoads from behind and poked the ball away to Ziegler, and Point Loma never found the basket again as the Cougars drained seven of their eight free throws down the stretch to clinch a berth in the NCCAA tournament.
Azusa Pacific shot 43.3 percent from the field, including a 51.9 percent clip in the second half. Katie Powell scored eight points off the bench, and Ziegler added four points, five assists, and four rebounds. Hardeman tallied a game-high four steals, and grabbed six rebounds.
Azusa Pacific will now compete in the NCCAA tournament, which begins March 19, with the championship game set for March 22. It is the sixth time Hardeman has led Azusa Pacific to a national tournament appearance. The seventh-year head coach owns a 10-4 all-time record in national tournament play, and guided the Cougars to the 2011 NAIA national championship.