APU advances to Elite Eight after beating Alaska Anchorage 65-63

The Azusa Pacific’s women’s basketball team traveled to San Diego to compete in the West Region bracket of the 2019 NCAA Division II Women’s Basketball Championship Tournament. This is the second time that the Cougars competed in the bracket and the time before, they failed to reach the regional championship. However, through three hard-fought matchups, they were able to win the Western Region Championship and advance to the Elite Eight.

After ending the year with a 25-5 record, APU was the fourth seed in the western bracket. Their first game was on March 15 against the fifth-seeded Cal Poly Pomona (CPP). The Cougars faced CPP earlier in the year and were victorious 74-70, and they were hoping for a similar result. Thanks to junior guard Rachel Bozlee’s 19 points and two late free throws from junior guard Savanna Hanson, the Cougars began the tournament strong with a 62-60 victory.

The next matchup was going to be an even bigger challenge, as they had to face undefeated UC San Diego (UCSD) on their home court two days later. UCSD held a five-point lead after the first quarter, but the Cougars used an impressive second quarter, where they outscored their opponents 19-6, to enter the second half leading by eight. APU continued that momentum into the third quarter with a 6-0 run, and they lead 38-24, which was the Cougars biggest lead.

UCSD played with a sense of urgency in the fourth quarter and made it a two point game with 10 seconds left. A free throw from Hanson made it a three point game with four seconds left, and the defense stopped a heave from the backcourt line to defeat the favored Tritons 64-61. Junior guard Daylee Hanson finished the game with a team-leading 23 points.

“We play our best defense when we are playing smart. We always go out there and give our fullest effort, but when we play smart that’s when we are at our best, and that’s how we played tonight,” said Daylee Hanson. “We also played with a big chip on our shoulder. There was a mindset that no team or player was unguardable.”

The road didn’t get any easier for APU, as they were set to battle the third-seeded University of Alaska Anchorage (UAA) on March 18 for the West Region Championship. Getting to this point already made history for APU, but the Cougars were determined to continue their quest of advancing to the Elite Eight.

The game didn’t start great for APU, as they quickly found themselves down 11-2 in the initial minutes of the first quarter. However, by the end of the first, the Cougars were only down by three. At the end of the first half, APU was up 38-37 thanks to a late three point shot by freshman guard Lydia Nieto.

“Just a great game,” said head coach TJ Hardeman following the match. “Both teams were battling like crazy. They started really strong in the first, but our team didn’t let up and played just as hard. They put us in a lot of uncomfortable situations, and I think we responded very well to them. The teamwork and communication by us was great. Overall, we played a really solid game.”

Throughout the rest of the game, UAA continued to battle back, but the Cougars kept their composure. After the third, APU still held a one point lead. But with 3.2 seconds left in the fourth, UAA was able to take their first lead of the half thanks to their dominant defense that held the Cougars offense to five points until then. Coach Hardeman quickly called a timeout. Certainly, nerves were high for the Cougars, and it would have taken a miracle for them to become champions.

Luckily for the Cougars, Monday night was a perfect time for that miracle.

Nieto took the ball with the clock winding down. With less than a second left, she awkwardly shot the ball behind the three point arc. As the ball soared through the air, the buzzer went off, and to the surprise of everyone in the stands, the ball went in, giving APU the 65-63 victory. Nieto ran to half court where she was tackled by her teammates and coaches in celebration. The true freshman lead the team with 15 points.

“I couldn’t have had this performance without my team. I have to give them all the props. The girls were moving the ball around and letting me have open shots. Coach was drawing up plays that let me touch the ball. But when I threw that ball up, I thought there was no way it was going in, and when it did, it was the best feeling in the world,” said Nieto.

APU held the West Regional trophy high in the air after the match, absorbing that victorious feeling. But there is more work to be done. The Cougars will now travel to Columbus, Ohio to compete in the Elite Eight with the announcement of their next opponent coming Wednesday. These games will begin on Tuesday, March 26. Although this is certainly a time for the APU community to celebrate, the journey is far from over.