JACKSON, Tenn. -- For the first 20 minutes of the game Azusa Pacific looked every bit the team that had not played for 13 days but, in the end, it will be back on the court tomorrow.
With Sarah Leathers leading the way with a team-high 19 points, 6 steals, 4 rebounds and 4 assists the Cougars erased a 13-point, second half, deficit by wearing down Berry (Ga.) inside as they advanced to the second round of the NAIA Tournament with a 74-62 win.
Monica Somers scored 17 points and Lindsey West added 15 points and 9 rebounds and the Cougars used a 21-6 second half run to propel them to the third win at the NAIA Tournament in program history.
Trailing 43-30 and desperate to find answers, the Cougars started to find some. Meliame Hala’ufia scored an inside basket to trigger the big second half run and gave her team quality post defense against the Lady Vikings’ leading scorer, Deana Duncan, who finished with 14 points and 19 rebounds.
“We had to bother her (Duncan) and get a hand in her face,” said head coach Danelle Liles. “Meliame came in and did a great job against her. We also needed some boards tonight and she is a good rebounder. She also takes pressure off of Lindsey.”
Hala’ufia had a nice game statistically with 12 points and 5 rebounds but she also began to wear down Duncan inside with her rugged defensive play. West again turned in a quality performance and played a role in turning the tide in the second half.
“Late in the game we just started digging deep to play with more heart,” said West. “They were running out of energy and we finally started to get back in the flow of things and got used to the gym in the second half.”
Leathers was a sparkplug as she created havoc in the backcourt for the Berry guards. At one point, she lunged in and swatted the ball away and controlled the dribble as she fell to her knees. She got to her feet and found an open Jaclyn Rice on the left wing who drilled a 3-pointer to tie the game at 49-49.
From there the Cougars rode their momentum to the win.
Establishing a rhythm in the first half was impossible for the Cougars after their opening scoring run and Liles challenged her team at halftime to take responsibility for it.
“I felt like it was a mental thing on our part. Instead of playing through some things that weren’t going our way we got frustrated and allowed everything to go downhill. At halftime, I told them to play together and not let things get to them,” said Liles.
Berry began to go to work inside in the second half as Duncan used her width inside to create space that then opened up space for shooters on the perimeter to operate. The Cougars went to a zone defense and upped their energy which forced several turnovers and brought the deficit back to single digits.
Liles put Meliame Hala’ufia on Duncan and her size gave her problems in the post but the Lady Vikings good interior passing still made life difficult inside.
With under a minute to play and the shot clock about to expire, Berry College launched a desperation 3 that ricocheted off the rim and off Crystal Jeanpierre before landing out of bound – Lady Vikings ball.
That sequence was a tidy summation of an inept first half by the Cougars who were struggled to make shots and made mental mistakes that helped fuel a 22-5 run by Berry that negated a wonderful start turning the momentum of the game completely around.
The Cougars, who have been bitten by poor starts this season, struggled from the field in the opening minutes of the game but a stingy defense kept the Lady Vikings from taking advantage. Then Azusa Pacific slowly began to heat up as Rice and Somers hit 3’s to give it an early 6-0 lead.
By the time Leathers drilled another 3-ball from the wing, the Cougars had built a 13-3 lead to start the game. However, the proceeded to struggle mightily from the field as Berry turned to its bench. Briana Caldwell, Lauren Phillips and Lindsay Murphy combined for 17 points in the opening half to fuel the 18-point turnaround.
But the Cougars were able to weather the storm and, in the end, survive and advance.
“We kept our defensive energy up during the game and when we do that we wear teams out. Even though we were down I wasn’t worried because they didn’t have a lot of subs and we started to move the ball inside to Lindsey and back outside,” said Leathers.
Azusa Pacific (24-9) will play Oklahoma City, a 78-46 winner over Missouri Baptist, on Friday, at 7:45 (PST).
“They are a very good team,” said Liles. “We will have to contain their inside game and limit any second chance opportunities.”