SAN DIEGO, Calif. -- Throughout the season slow starts have had a tendency to plague Azusa Pacific and tonight it cost them an opportunity to host the GSAC Tournament championship game.
In a match-up of 2 of the best team’s in the nation, No. 15-ranked Point Loma Nazarene upended No. 10-ranked Azusa Pacific, 78-71, to advance to the conference tournament title game.
The second-seeded Sea Lions will host the No. 4-seed, The Master’s, which handed Vanguard its first loss of the season, 78-72, earlier in the evening. The winner will earn an automatic bid into the NAIA Tournament.
It was a missed opportunity for the Cougars who would have hosted the Mustangs on Monday night but instead now leaves their own tournament fate elsewhere.
Mica DeHoog and Kati Hilbelink scored 18 points apiece as the Sea Lions had 5 players in double-figures. While the balanced scoring effort helped Point Loma Nazarene, it was a key stretch in the first half that buried the Cougars in a hole that took to much energy to get out of.
After pulling within 24-19 after Lindsey West sank a pair of free throws, the Sea Lions ripped off an 11-0 run to open up a 16-point advantage. The lead later ballooned to 19 in the closing seconds of the first half when the Cougars turned the ball over on 4 consecutive possessions and Erica Dotson drilled a 3-pointer to put Point Loma Nazarene up 44-25.
“We did not come out and play with heart and I’m not really sure why,” said head coach Danelle Liles. “I told the girls that this is an important lesson that we have to come out ready to play from the beginning. We turned the ball over too much and didn’t get anything going until the second half.”
Coming out of the locker room, the Cougars had nothing to lose by letting it rip and playing as aggressively as possible. They also replenished some energy from the crowd.
“We didn’t change anything really but just started to play better,” said Liles. “The baseball team was there and really gave us a lot of encouragement and it helped our energy on the floor.”
The high water mark for the Sea Lions came with 15:22 to play when Hilbelink knocked down a jumper to give them a 55-31 lead. Azusa Pacific then began to diligently chip away at its deficit commencing a 13-6 run to at least stabilize its offense.
However, after a 3-pointer by Jaclyn Rice made it 61-44, Point Loma Nazarene scored the next 5 points to move back ahead by 22. That is when the Cougars looked to take the inside lane and make their move to pass the Sea Lions.
Inside baskets by Ashley Oakes and Sarah Leathers triggered a 14-0 run that got Azusa Pacific to within 66-58 with just over 6 minutes to play. However, the Cougars could not get any closer than 5 points the rest of the way.
West lead the Cougars with 24 points, 12 rebounds and 3 assists in the loss. Leathers scored 13 points and handed out 2 assists.
Azusa Pacific falls to 23-9 as it will now wait to hear its NAIA Tournament fate this next week.