GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. – The reigning West Region Champions are returning to the Elite Eight, as the Azusa Pacific Cougars knocked off Westminster by a 53-48 final on Monday night.
Azusa Pacific won the regional crown in 2019 to advance to the Elite Eight, while the 2020 West Regional never took place due to the global pandemic.
If there was ever any doubt that the Cougars were still the team to beat out West, Azusa Pacific put that to rest and emerged from the unique year that was the 2020-21 season as the last one standing in the region once again.
“Jan. 4 was the day that this team met each other,” said head coach T.J. Hardeman, “and we worked hard to overcome several significant injuries and showed resilience all year long.”
Paige Uyehara scored a game-high 15 points and dished out four assists, and she was joined in double-figures by Laura Pranger and Kayla Shaw, who each finished with 10. Pranger also had five blocks in the game. Alex Lowden came up huge for the Cougars, hauling in 15 rebounds, including six on the offensive end, while scoring nine points and tallying three assists.
Molly Whitmore was another force on the glass, finishing with 11 rebounds, five of which were on the offensive end. The All-Tournament Team was announced post game, with Shaw being named the MVP, and Pranger and Uyehara each being selected.
Through the first half, it looked as though Azusa Pacific would have little issue in advancing to the Elite Eight. In the first quarter, the Cougars held Westminster to just nine points on 4-for-14 shooting, while a 7-for-16 (3-for-8 from three) effort on the offensive end allowed Azusa Pacific to take a 19-9 lead going into the second quarter.
The Cougars grew their lead to as large as 16 early in the second (25-9, 8:32), and would not see the margin dip below 11. After the first 20 minutes of play, Azusa Pacific was able to enter the locker room with a 36-21 advantage. Through the first seven minutes of the third quarter, the Cougars maintained control, leading by no less than 13 over that stretch. However, the game began to change around the three minute mark in the third, after Azusa Pacific had taken a 45-27 lead with 3:07 on the clock.
Following a Uyehara layup that made the score 45-27, the Griffins not only scored on their ensuing possession, but they held the Cougars scoreless over the remainder of the third quarter and cut the deficit down to 45-35 to enter the fourth. The momentum stayed on the side of Westminster to open the final period, as the Griffins held the Cougars to just one basket over four minutes of play, ultimately pulling within one possession at 47-44 with 5:46 remaining.
Still down by three with three and a half minutes to play, the Griffins’ Mariah Martin missed a three-pointer that led to a Whitmore rebound, who kicked it to Uyehara on an outlet pass, who then found Shaw up the floor for an uncontested layup to make it a two possession game at 49-44 with 4:12 remaining.
While the game was in no way secure for the Cougars, the play brought some relief to a back-and-forth sequence which put a tired Azusa Pacific team under constant stress and pressure. The fastbreak bucket gave the Cougars just enough cushion to ease the tension. While Westminster would trail by three with 18 seconds remaining, the Cougars held off the late push to hang on and punch their ticket back to Ohio.
Azusa Pacific finished 21-for-68 (31%) from the floor, while the Griffins shot 18-for-61 (30%). From beyond-the-arc, both teams finished at 24%, with the Cougars going 6-for-25, compared to Westminster’s performance of 5-for-21.
A key area that helped lift the Cougars to victory was their ability to capitalize on the few situations in which they turned the Griffins over, as Azusa Pacific scored 14 points off of 11 turnovers, while Westminster forced just seven turnovers and only had four points from those opportunities. While Azusa Pacific has tended to pound the ball inside for most of the year, the Cougars were outscored by a 24-12 margin in the paint.
“We were absolutely gassed down the stretch… from the altitude to just everything else. All year we have been the comeback team, so we did not get flustered down the stretch, and we just took it play-by-play and did not worry about anything else,” said Harden
“We definitely had to dig deep at the end. We had times where we mentally slipped and Westminster capitalized on that, but I would say that we were tough and we were able to push through and pull it off,” said Uyehara.
The Cougars will now prepare for their return trip to the Elite Eight in Columbus, Ohio. Columbus was the location for the 2019 Elite Eight, where the Cougars fell to Indiana-Pennsylvania in the quarterfinals. While the Cougars know they will be playing on at the Greater Columbus Convention Center on Tuesday, March 23, their opponent is unknown.
The NCAA Division II Women’s Basketball Committee will seed the eight remaining teams on Tuesday. Here are the eight teams that are awaiting seeding: Azusa Pacific, Belmont Abbey, Charleston (W.V.), Central Missouri, Daemen, Drury, Lander, and Lubbock Christian. Keep an eye out for the Elite Eight seedings on the official bracket for the 2021 NCAA Division II Women’s Basketball Championship, which can be viewed here.
— Courtesy Azusa Pacific Athletics