Union Falls in Final; Azusa Pacific Wins Title
ABC 7 Eyewitness News Staff
Azusa Pacific (Calif.) won its first-ever NAIA Division I Women’s Basketball National Championship by defeating two-time defending national champion Union (Tenn.), 65-59, Tuesday in Oman Arena. The Cougars, who close out their season with a record of 33-5, rallied from a five-point halftime deficit and took the lead in the final minutes of the game. Union’s campaign ends at 35-2.
“We knew it was going to be a rough game,” Azusa Pacific head women’s basketball coach T.J. Hardeman said. “Union is very physical and so are we. We talked about being ready for that and instead of waiting for it, we wanted to bring it. We knew it was going to be a fight, so we got after it.”
Union quickly raced out to a 14-4 lead behind a pair of 3-pointers from Kayla Hudson and Kayla Bryant and a Hope Adams bucket. Bryant’s trey at 14:07 gave the Lady Bulldogs their only double-figure advantage in the game. Union held its lead throughout the half, but saw it dwindle as halftime approached. With 2:21 remaining, Alex Moore-Porter sunk a 3-pointer to bring the Cougars within two at 29-27. Bryant sent the Lady Bulldogs into the locker room with a five-point lead, 32-27, after draining a shot from long range.
The difference in the first half came at the free-throw line. Union converted on all five of its attempts, but Azusa Pacific didn’t even make one trip to the charity stripe. The Cougars held an edge from both the field and from behind the 3-point line, shooting 46 and 60 percent, respectively. Union was 39 percent from the floor and 38 percent from 3-point land. Bryant led all scorers with nine points on a trio of 3s.
“When we played as bad as we did in the first half and we were still in it, I thought that if they can’t put us away while we’re playing like this, if we just start playing a little bit better, they’re going to be in trouble,” Hardeman said. “That’s what we talked about at halftime; we’re only five down, let’s put it together. Everyone in the locker room believed and I told them that we are going to win this game, you wait and see. We talked about not wanting to, but actually doing it. That was our goal, to do it as a team.”
Coming out of the break, Zeinab Chan pushed the Lady Bulldogs’ lead to seven points, 40-33, after sinking a pair of freebies at 15:20. It was at that point that Azusa Pacific put the pressure on with a full-court press, forcing Union into consecutive turnovers. The Cougars capitalized and tied the game at 40-40 at the 12:37 mark.
A see-saw battle waged on over the next 10:13, with Union maintaining the lead and Azusa Pacific tying the contest on five occasions. Briana Hall’s steal off of Chan led to a fast-break bucket to give the Cougars a 57-55 lead with 1:14 left on the clock. After not making it the free-throw line in the first half, Azusa Pacific made every trip count when it mattered most. The Cougars went to the line eight times in the closing minute and sunk all eight attempts to deny the Lady Bulldogs a third-straight title. Eboni Sadler hit six free throws in the crunch to ice the victory.
Azusa Pacific was once again paced by a balanced scoring attack as Sadler and Moore-Porter each had 17-point outings on 5-of-11 and 6-of-14 shooting efforts, respectively. Bench contributions were in favor of the Cougars with C.J. Hill scoring seven points and Amber Williams registering six. Azusa Pacific outscored the Lady Bulldogs 40-26 in the paint and they only had six points from subs.
“I don’t think one person could have put the team on their back and beat Union,” Hardeman said. “When there are so many people, they [Union] didn’t know who to try and stop.”
Chan finished with a double-double of 21 points and 13 rebounds for the Lady Bulldogs. She was joined in double-figures by fellow senior Kayla Hudson with 17 points, 15 of which came from downtown. Lavanda Ross conducted the offense with seven assists. Union shot 38 percent in the loss, including 33 percent from the 3-point line.
The national championship rematch between the Lady Bulldogs and Azusa Pacific marked the fourth time in the event’s history that teams have collided in the final contest in back-to-back years.
Azusa Pacific advanced to its second championship game in as many years after bowing out in the first or second round in its 10 previous trips. The Cougars are now 15-13 in 13 total appearances. The loss for Union snapped a 14-game winning streak in National Championship play dating back to its first-round game in 2009. The Lady Bulldogs are now 5-3 in title games and 63-17 all-time. Their 63 National Championship wins are the most among any NAIA Division I program.