Azusa Pacific earned a hard-fought 72-70 win over Fresno Pacific

It was a tale of two halves for Azusa Pacific’s women’s basketball team on Thursday night against Fresno Pacific (FPU). The Cougars trailed by nine at halftime but turned things around in the second half. With the game tied at 70-70, junior Laura Pranger got past her defender, drove to the basket, and laid in the game-winning shot in the dying seconds of the fourth quarter for a 72-70 win. 

“Fresno is one of the hardest-competing teams in our conference,” said Pranger. “They’re always good competition and they always have really good players on their team, so beating a team like that, especially in a game like that, it just feels really good. That would have been a tough one to lose.” 

The Cougars got off to a slow start in the first half, as FPU rattled off four straight points to start the contest. The Cougars fought back, and both teams traded baskets back and forth for most of the quarter. 

With just under five minutes remaining in the first quarter, the Cougars opened up a six-point lead after Molly Whitmore converted a layup. However, that lead would not last, as the Sunbirds went on a 10-3 run to close the quarter and take a 16-15 lead. 

Again, FPU got off to a hot start in the second quarter, going up by five points early. However, senior Savanna Hanson went on a 5-0 run by herself with just over seven minutes left in the quarter to tie the game at 20-20. 

After that run, the quarter belonged to the Sunbirds. Bayli and Kate McClard kicked off the scoring barrage for FPU to open up a 10-point lead. Senior Zoe March hit three free throws in the final minute to cut the lead to seven points, but Landynn Munster hit a pair of free throws just before the end of the half to give FPU a 35-26 lead. 

At the half, the Cougars shot just 24.2 percent from the field and hit none of their eight three-point attempts. 

“At halftime, we came together because we felt like we weren’t playing Azusa Pacific basketball,” said March. “We weren’t coming together on the court, so the conversation in the locker room was, ‘we need to start playing together. We need to set each other up on offense and be a little less individualistic,’ and we did exactly that. It became a game that we enjoyed being out on the court to play.” 

The start of the third quarter looked similar to the beginnings of each quarter before it, as Jessica Malazarte drilled a three to put FPU up by 12 points. However, quickly after that, the Cougars found the turning point they needed. 

Hanson went down after some hard contact and was replaced by Rachel Bozlee. On the ensuing Cougar possession, March found senior Rachel Bozlee for the Cougars’ first three-pointer of the game. Then the pair combined for another three to cut the Sunbirds’ lead to just six. The Cougars went on an 8-2 run to cut the deficit to just one point heading into the fourth quarter. 

“When you work hard with a team for so long, you become sisters,” said March. “So when a sister goes down on the court as Savanna did–and Savanna is a hard worker, you can’t help but watch her hard work and want to put forth the exact same energy … We wanted to come back and have her back and pick up the slack because we are missing out on a valuable player. It definitely motivated us.”

Whitmore’s layup in the opening minute of the fourth quarter gave the Cougars their first lead in the contest since the first quarter, at 50-49. Midway through the quarter, APU opened up an eight-point lead and seemed to finally be settling into the driver’s seat for the night. But the Sunbirds would not go down without a fight. 

Over the next four minutes, FPU battled their way back into the game, ultimately tying the contest at 67-67 with one minute left on the clock. Malazarte hit a pair of free throws with just over 30 seconds left, to put the Sunbirds back in the lead. Then, Whitmore hit one of two from the line to cut the deficit to one point for the Cougars. Following a Savanna Hanson layup with 13 seconds left to retake the lead for APU, Malazarte made a free throw to tie the game at 70-70 with just seven seconds left. 

The Cougars had possession in their offensive half of the court, right in front of their bench for the final seconds of the half. March got the pass, drove into the lane, but was stopped and had to pass out to the wing where Pranger was waiting. Pranger raced by the oncoming defender, and the lane opened up. With .3 seconds remaining, her shot off of the backboard went in, sending the crowd inside Felix Event Center into a state of commotion.

“This was my second game back from injury and I hadn’t been making a lot of shots tonight, so I knew a three-pointer probably wasn’t the best option,” said Pranger. “I saw my defender come up on me, so I gave a little fake and then there was no one to help. I thought ‘well, it is tied, so it doesn’t matter if I make this or miss it, so I might as well shoot it. I just had to be confident and shoot, so I did.”

FPU was unable to score before time expired, and the Cougars escaped with a 72-70 victory at home. 

“I was very happy that we stayed after it,” said head coach TJ Hardeman. “We stayed together and we played together. We were 3-20 from the three-point line and 13-23 from the free-throw line, and we just weren’t shooting well, but we just found a way to win. I thought that Zoe came through really big and got us going. But then we lost that lead and were still able to hang tough through some close encounters and then that was an awesome drive by Laura at the end.”

APU will play at home again on Saturday against Dominican at 2:15 P.M.