The Azusa Pacific women’s basketball team, coming off a national championship in 2011, went 2-1 at this year’s NAIA national tournament, falling in the third round to Oklahoma City. And even though the Cougars didn’t bring home a title like last year their trip was far from a failure, due in part to their time with each other and in the community.
In addition to playing basketball the players volunteered at a local YMCA, running a mini basketball camp for under-privileged youth on top of having dinner with the Frankfort High School girl’s team before flying back to California on Sunday night.
The Cougars played their first game in the Frankfort Convention Center, which opened its doors as the new host for the women’s basketball tournament; matching up with a MidAmerica Nazarene (Kan.) team that was making its first appearance. The Pioneers were ranked No. 21 in the NAIA, while the Cougars were ranked No. 9.
In the game, which is worthy of its own article, Azusa Pacific opened poorly, trailing by eight at half time. But at the beginning of the second half the Cougars found their rhythm and eventually tied it up at the end of regulation in a pair of free throws from all-American Briana Hall. In overtime MidAmerica Nazarene took an early edge, but the Cougars struck back with a 9-2 run, capped by two more free throws from Hall to take the 77-72 win over the Pioneers.
“It’s my senior year so I really wanted us to finish strong. As a team we had to pull it together and do absolutely everything we could to win,” said Hall about her performance. “We really didn’t want to go home after the first game, so we gave it our all and it paid off.”
After the Azusa Pacific squeaked by, the team had a full day of practice and community service around the town of Frankfort Kentucky on Thursday. The players and coaches ran a basketball camp for elementary school students at the local YMCA. The kids had a chance to get to know the players, run relay races, sing songs, and learn about the importance of academics and athletics from the players.
“Playing with the kids was such a wonderful experience because it took us out of our comfort zones and we got to serve the community together,” said freshman guard Katie Powell.
Later that night a local church and the Cougars’ team sponsor, Frankfort Women Leading Change, shared their Kentucky hospitality by cooking a dinner for them and the local high school girl’s basketball team. The setting allowed the Cougars to share some of their experiences and wisdom with the younger athletes.
Early Friday morning was Azusa Pacific’s second round contest against a Shawnee State team that was ranked higher in the polls (8). It was another game that came down to the last few seconds against a Bears team that was well equipped and determined to compete, as evidenced by their point guard playing with a broken arm.
The Cougars were up by as many as 17 in the second half, but Shawnee State continued to battle back by cutting the margin to two points with under a minute to play. Leading by two with seconds to go Amber Williams came up with a steal on the Bears’ final possession to clinch the 67-61 win.
With each win the competition kept getting more difficult for the Cougars. On Saturday the Azusa Pacific played Oklahoma City, which was ranked number one in the nation. The Cougars let Oklahoma City take a 9-2 lead in the first few minutes of the game. But Azusa Pacific fought back and was only down by six at the break.
In the second half Azusa Pacific struggled and let the Stars pull away before sending the Cougars home with a 78-61 loss.
“It says something about our team that we were fully expecting to beat the top ranked team in the country and we were disappointed when it didn’t happen,” said assistant coach Dan Ploog. “Even though we didn’t make all of the shots we wanted to make or get every rebound we could have grabbed, our girls consistently played with the effort and togetherness that makes a coach proud and represented our university well. I am proud and I am very excited for us to move to NCAA Division Two next year”