AZUSA, Calif.-- The defensive intensity that head coach Danelle Liles has been looking for in her team showed up Saturday in a big way as Azusa Pacific locked up the quick guards of New Mexico Highlands en route to a 76-57 win at the Cougar Thanksgiving Classic.
Sarah Leathers led the way with a career-high 23 points, 5 rebounds and 4 steals. Leathers also set a new career-high with 5 3-point field goals besting her previous mark of 4 set last year.
While Leathers was having a terrific offensive night it was at the defensive end that the Cougars were looking to turn up the heat on their opponent. “We focused on communication and knowing where their shooters were at,” said Liles of the team’s preparation. “I think our defense created our offensive opportunities tonight. We got some wide open 3’s and knocked those down.”
The players heeded the advice of the coaching staff as they set a new season mark by allowing just 57 points.
“That’s all we focused on coming into tonight was defense and I think that’s why we were a little short on offense early because everyone was taking it personal if whoever we were guarding would score,” said Leathers. “It’s hard to shoot with people in your face and we did a good job of that tonight.”
The Cougars held the Cowgirls to 15 percent shooting from 3-point range (3-for-20) and 35 percent for the game.
After shooting a chilly 1-for-9 from 3-point range in the first half themselves, the Cougars (3-2) quickly heated up. Leathers and Jaclyn Rice made open jumpers in the second half which allowed a 9-point halftime advantage to balloon into a 49-33 lead less than 8 minutes in.
However, the Cowgirls (1-2) fought back going to a 7-1 run to cut the deficit to 10 on a 3-pointer by Angel Sparks. The Cougars responded as Leathers promptly drilled a 3 and then turned things over to Rice who hit 3 triples in a span of 57 seconds to push the lead back out of reach.
“I saw Jackie going off and it helped create shots for me because they had to leave me open and when we get the ball into the post they are looking for me,” said Leathers, the Cougars’ sophomore point guard.
Rice and Ashley Oakes scored 11 points apiece for the Cougars who shot 47 percent for the game but were a blistering 9-for-17 from downtown in the second half.
“I think Sarah is the smartest player out on the court. She is a coach out there. She had the ability to score last year but we didn’t need her to as much. I told her at the beginning of the year to look to score more. I think because she is so unselfish that it opens up shots for her,” said Liles.
Now Azusa Pacific will prepare for arch-rival Biola. The Cougars host the Eagles next Tuesday night at 5:30 p.m. at the Felix Event Center and know they must continue to play with a high level of focus and energy.
“We came out with passion and you could tell that from the get go from the jump ball. We played hard last night but it was just a different type of intensity,” Liles said.