JACKSON, Tenn. -- It was a different year and definitely a different game but, in the end, the result was still the same as Azusa Pacific was defeated by Oklahoma City for the second straight season in the second round of the NAIA Tournament at Oman Arena.
The Stars got a ridiculous game from Mariam Sy who scored 36 points and grabbed 19 rebounds as they beat the Cougars, 92-84, to advance to a quarterfinal match-up against Union (Tenn.).
While last year’s blowout loss was so bad it might have been easy to laugh it off, the latest edition proved difficult to swallow. The Cougars led at halftime, 44-43, and trailed by only 2 points with 2:16 remaining in the game. But Sy and Zanita Johnson were a combined 8-for-8 down the stretch from the free throw line as the Stars shot a stunning 91 percent (29-for-32) from the charity stripe.
As she has done so many times in her terrific 4-year career, Lindsey West led the Cougars with 17 points as she became the all-time leading scorer in program history. She finished her career with 1,939 points eclipsing the previous mark of 1,929 set by Cindy DeYoung. West began the year seventh on the list but vaulted past everyone during a campaign in which she averaged nearly 19 points per game.
“When I first heard about it I had to force myself to stop thinking about it,” said West. “I’m happy we got to the second round. I would rather have a national championship but it’s great. Monica (Somers) told me I had to get it so that they could put my face up in the Hall of Champions. This was a great group of girls and I’m proud to have played with them”
As West was setting her feat, the Cougars were trying to work some team magic of their own over a team that had drilled them by 48 in the NAIA Tournament last year.
The employment of a 1-3-1 zone at the outset of the game caused confusion for the Stars who went away from Sy, their strong inside presence. On the flip side, the Cougars lobbed the ball into Meliame Hala’ufia who was fronted in the post. She flipped the ball off the glass and into the bucket numerous times. The Stars’ defensive rotations were late and, therefore, ineffective.
“We ran that same zone last night against Berry 3 times and I think they scored on each possession but tonight it really threw them off,” said head coach Danelle Liles who became the first head coach in program history to win 2 career NAIA Tournament games. “Before our game we watched a little bit of St. Xavier and how hard they were playing against Union. I think that really helped us realize how we had to play with energy and leave it out on the floor which we did.”
Hala’ufia was just one example of the quality play Azusa Pacific got of its bench in the first half. She finised the game with a season-high 18 points on 8-for-10 shooting. While she scored 12 first half points, Oakes drained a 3 from the right wing and provided some muscle inside. She finished with 11 points and a team-high 8 rebounds. The Cougars were hot from the field making 17-of-30 shots (57 percent) while having only 5 attempts from 3-point range.
“This year we had a lot more experience and we knew we could play with them,” said Oakes.
Azusa Pacific’s accuracy allowed them to build a lead that ballooned as big as 21-12 before Oklahoma City began to shake off the doldrums and get into the flow of its offense. The Stars blitzed the Cougars with a 15-0 run which was jumped started by Sy who had 8 of those points.
But instead of panicking, the Cougars calmly stabilized the ship. Sarah Leathers stole the ball from Chelsea Ledbetter and raced in for a lay-up to end the run and start a 17-6 counterpunch that put Azusa Pacific back out in front, 42-36.
The Cougars had a lot things go their way in the first half. Alyssa Ferdaszewski missed a free throw but no one from Oklahoma City troubled themselves with getting to the ball. Instead, Jaclyn Rice got there and spun around and drained an 8-foot baseline jumper. Moments later, Leathers banked in a high arching 3 from the left wing. At once her eyes widened in surprise while she gave a slight shrug and headed back on defense.
As their confidence grew so did their voices. They called out defensive signals that much stronger and exuberantly celebrated each others hustle plays a little more enthusiastically.
But things took a quick turn for the worse at the end of the first half. After Somers hit a jumper to put Azusa Pacific ahead 44-37 with 49 seconds remaining, the Stars scored 6 straight points and went intermission down by a single digit.
“We knew it would be a game of runs and the biggest thing to us was that we had the lead by 1. We were playing well and that was what was important to us,” said Somers.
Then, in the second half, Sy went to work as she scored 24 points in the period. Incredibly, she picked up her third foul with 16:46 left in the game but managed to elude her fourth until late in the game. Her work inside gave the Stars a huge edge in the paint.
“She pretty much killed us,” said Somers.
With the Cougars trailing 81-79 and under 2 minutes to play the most crucial sequence of the night occurred. Sy and West – each saddled with 4 fouls – went after a rebound and collided. While West tumbled to the floor the whistle blew – against her. The balance of power had decisively shifted with each team’s most important player at risk and the result indicated as much. Over the next minute, Oklahoma City went on an 8-0 to extend the lead to double digits and put the game out of reach.
“It was a huge difference from last year. The biggest thing for us was we could stop their runs and start our own,” said West. “Last season everyone wanted to be the hero but tonight we played as a team and we believed we could win.”
Azusa Pacific finishes its season 24-10 matching last year’s total of wins. “We accomplished a lot this season and I’m proud of the way we fought it was a good indicator of the way we’ve played this season,” said Liles.