Despite constant uncertainty, the Cougars ended the 2021 season winning eight of their last nine games, and left with a title in the process.
Heading into the new year, women’s basketball head coach TJ Hardeman had no idea what was in store for his team. In 2021, confidence continued to grow among all parties that a season was capable of transpiring, and once the PacWest released their schedule it became official. Yet, uncertainty remained constant throughout the entire month and a half.
“Oh absolutely,” Hardeman said when asked if that unpredictability affected the girls during their season. “We entered every week knowing that there was a chance we could not play because of Covid and the league’s protocol. So, we just make sure we take advantage of the things we are able to control.”
That has been the mantra of their season. Knowing that these times have led to very minimal opportunities to take hold of your destiny, Hardeman constantly preached the importance of taking advantage of those moments when they come. That is precisely what the Cougars did this past weekend.
In their second season series against Point Loma, APU escaped with two victories to advance their record to 10-4, which was the strongest win-loss differential in the PacWest Southern California Pod. Meaning, the Cougars left the Felix Event Center as champions of their respected pod.
While Saturday night resulted in the team winning a title, Friday’s matchup against Point Loma was a memorable affair. The Cougars won the game by a single bucket, escaping with the 78-76 favor. Despite being outmatched in the first quarter by 11 points, APU entered the second half down by six points.
Momentum switched gears in the final quarter of play. Sophomore guard, Paige Uyehara scored eight straight points for APU with six minutes left to play, and Alex Loden’s three-point shot gave the Cougars their first lead since making the first basket of the game. However, the Sea Lions were resilient and earned back their lead with 2:18 remaining. The Cougars defense failed to allow another point for the rest of the contest, while a jumper by Holly Whitmore clinched the victory for APU.
The recent victors continued to impress on the court to start the next day’s matchup. The Cougars outscored Point Loma 19-9 in the first quarter, including containing their three-point performance to 0/7 from behind the arc throughout that span.
APU added to their lead when the first half ended, as they headed back to the locker room up by 12. The third quarter only continued to show the Cougars’ dominance, as they led 65-48 to start the final quarter, a difference that the Sea Lions were incapable of fighting back from by the end of the whistle.
The 79-66 victory was highlighted by the play of the Cougars starting five. Every player in that lineup scored in double-digits for the second consecutive game, which is a testament to an adaptable team.
With Laura Pranger —possibly the team’s best defender— missing nearly the entire 2021 season, and Kayla Shaw —who led the team in scoring with an average of 17.8 ppg— missing the final four games of the season, the Cougars were a team that could have collapsed from the injury bubble. But they didn’t. In fact, they did the exact opposite — they thrived.
“In the final game of our season, we have three sophomores and two freshmen all on the court at the same time. That takes guts for them to play as well as they did, and the effort was tremendous. And what’s exciting is that there is so much room for growth,” said Hardeman.
While APU now has a pod championship in their arsenal, their season is likely not finished. Although it is not a guarantee, the Cougars are waiting to see where they will rank in the NCAA West Region Tournament, which is expected to be announced on March 9. Point Loma was ranked fifth in the west region standings before their series against APU, and with the Cougars escaping with two wins, they are hoping that their previously-announced eighth seed will jump into contention for the tournament.
“I see no reason why we don’t get in,” said Hardeman. “With the way we finished this season, and the fact that we beat a team twice who was ranked higher than us on the polls, I can’t imagine our season stopping just yet.”