SANTA CLARITA, Calif. -- The NAIA’s No. 8-ranked Azusa Pacific rallied from a 23-17 deficit with the match on the line in the fourth set, scoring 7 straight and rallying all the way back for a 5-set win over unranked The Master’s Saturday afternoon in Santa Clarita.
The Cougars’ winning margin was 2 points in each of its wins in the second, fourth, and fifth sets, and the narrow victory against the upset-minded Mustangs improved Azusa Pacific’s record in 5-set matches over the past 2 seasons to 14-1, including an 8-1 mark in 5-setters this year.
“It’s crazy how just a few points can make such a huge difference in your season,” Cougar head coach Chris Keife said. “We play with the confidence that if we’re behind, if we can get to the fifth set, we can win it there. As a coach, I’m not exactly pleased about going to 5 sets, but our toughness when we do go there is good to see. Today was an example of that – we kept plugging away and got some breaks in the end.”
Junior right side hitter Whittany Radcliffe led the way with a match-high 25 kills, including 2 while facing match point in the fourth set. The Cougars faced another match point late in the third set before scoring 3 straight for the 17-15 win to finish off the comeback. Radcliffe’s 25-kill, 4-error performance included a blistering .382 attack percentage, and junior middle blocker Amy Alkazin and Christy Cain each converted at a .500 clip for a Cougar offense that largely struggled outside of that trio.
“We would have one area that was good for a few plays, then another area dropped and struggled,” Keife said. “I never felt like we were in a good rhythm in any area of the game, but the thing that I appreciated was that the girls knew how much it mattered and worked so hard to bring home the win.”
Alkazin recorded 13 kills against only 2 errors, and Cain had 6 kills in 12 errorless attempts, while the Azusa Pacific defense was led by junior libero Robin Portela’s match-high 27 digs. Where the Cougars ran into trouble was returning serves and hitting into the Mustang block, with The Master’s picking up 10 points on service aces along with another 22 points on blocks for a season-high block total for an Azusa Pacific opponent.
After dropping 2 of the first 3 sets and trailing 23-17 in the fourth set, just 2 points away from a 4-set defeat, the Cougars rallied behind Alkazin and Radcliffe for 7 straight points to take a 24-23 lead. Alkazin scored the first point with a kill, and the last of Radcliffe’s 3 kills in the run gave Azusa Pacific a 24-23 lead.
A Mustang kill and block gave The Master’s its first of 2 match points in the set at 25-24, but a pair of Radcliffe kills tied the set at 25-25 and 26-26. A Cain kill gave the Cougars a 27-26 lead, and a Mustang attack error on the ensuing point gave Azusa Pacific a 28-26 fourth-set win that sent the match to the decisive fifth set.
“We really struggled offensively, and we gave them a lot of points because of that,” Keife said. “Still, I have to give my team credit, because they didn’t give up. During that run (in the fourth set) where we really had to buckle down, we served tough and finally started making some plays.”
The fifth set featured 12 tie scores and 7 lead changes. The Master’s fought off the Cougars’ first match point at 14-12 with a 3-point run, giving the Mustangs another match-point opportunity. However, Cain quickly turned the tables with 2 kills in a match-ending 3-point push for the 17-15 win.
The Master’s was led by sophomore Tori Callahan’s 17-kill, 12-block performance, and junior outside hitter Jillian Anderson added 8 kills with 10 blocks. The Mustangs, who dropped to 7-20 overall and 2-16 in GSAC play, have now dropped 7 straight GSAC matches heading into a final week that features visits to Westmont and Fresno Pacific.
Azusa Pacific improves to 25-6 overall and 12-6 in GSAC play, and the Cougars start their final week of the regular season by hosting Hope International on Tuesday, Nov. 9. The regular season concludes on Saturday, Nov. 13, with a visit to the NAIA’s No. 11-ranked Concordia, which handed Azusa Pacific its only 5-set defeat in the past 2 seasons in the team’s first regular-season meeting Oct. 10 at the Felix Event Center.