Despite loss, Cougars are still moving forward

Tears welled in her eyes as she walked off the court and toward the bench. It wasn’t the ending that she or any of her teammates wanted. It was the waning moments of the Cougars 87-77 loss to UC San Diego in the West Region semifinals, and senior forward Kelly Hardeman had just fouled out of her last game.

She would soon be joined by her teammates.

The Cougars came into the semifinals as winners of 16 straight games, one away from tying the program’s all-time record. For the first half, it looked as if the streak would go on. The Cougars led by 12 after the first quarter and eight after the second. A whirlwind third put the Cougars behind by 10, and from there it was over.

It wasn’t the ending that the Cougars wanted. It wasn’t the tears they wanted. The goal was to be hoisting a trophy in Indianapolis as national champions, not walking back to their locker room inside the Felix Event Center defeated.

While winning the national championship is obviously the goal for any team, it was plausible for the Cougars.

“We took offseason super seriously. We were determined to come into the year and do as well as we could. That was our mindset from the get-go, that we know we’re a very talented team,” Hardeman said. “We could win the national championship.”

The Cougars had a successful 2014-15 season and a returning group of seven seniors and four starters. Beyond the talent, they had the chemistry.

“We wanted it for each other,” senior guard Alison Greene said. “It wasn’t just an individual thing. We wanted it for APU.”

Although they fell short of their goal, it was the most important season in Cougars history, even more than the NAIA National Championship in 2011.

Leading up the 2011 season, Azusa Pacific had been the best athletic department in the NAIA for six seasons, winning six Directors Cups. The award was given to the best overall athletic department.

The women’s basketball team had been to the National Tournament in 10 of 11 years, including a national runner-up in 2010. In short, the Cougars were known. They were respected.

The same can’t be said after their transition to the NCAA Division II. The Cougars were back to square one across the board and needed to build their brand of excellence from the ground up.

This year’s team did that for the women’s basketball program. They made the excellence in Azusa known.

“To make that transition from an NAIA power to now, I think a lot of people understand [this] is a solid program,” head coach TJ Hardeman said of the seniors.

This year’s women’s team made its program known just like last year’s men’s basketball team. At the center of a group of seniors, one player led them.

For the men, it was Troy Leaf. For the women, Kelly Hardeman.

Kelly Hardeman was named PacWest Player of the Year after leading the Cougars to the PacWest regular season and tournament titles. Both are firsts for the Cougars. She was then awarded West Region Player of the Year for her efforts in leading the Cougars to the top seed in West Region.

Hardeman ends her career by earning a pair of All-American honors. The Women’s Basketball Coaches Association awarded Hardeman with an honorable mention as the Conference Commissioners Association recognized her as a second-team honoree.

Kelly Hardeman averaged 17.3 points per game, 9.2 rebounds per game, as well as contributing 43 blocks and 57 steals on the season.

“I didn’t average the most points in the league or the most rebounds. The fact that our team was so successful, I couldn’t do it alone. I had people on my team who helped me shine,” said Kelly Hardeman, who humbly deflected the attention.

Indeed, she did have a talented cast of teammates. Senior guard Cydnie Jones was named PacWest Tournament MVP and second-team All-PacWest, while Greene and junior center Maggie Dumphy were named to the third team.

Still, there was the leader. The focal point. The senior from Manilla.

“No one ever had to doubt her individual effort. She would always stay after practice and get extra shots. She did everything she needed to do to be our leader,” senior guard Miriam Zabinsky said.

Her mark will forever be on the Azusa Pacific record book. She’s the all-time leader in three-pointers made, and fourth in total points scored.

More important, she and her team leave a legacy—ushering in the new era of success.