Despite a heartbreaking loss in the semifinal round of the NCAA West Regional, the legacy of this year’s team will forever be etched in the record books.

It’s hard to imagine a game without Paige Uyehara dribbling down the court to find either of her dominant post players, Molly Whitmore or TyLee Manuel, down low. It’s equally as hard to imagine a bench without Kayden Casey yelling “Boooom” after a typical Uyehara three-pointer in the most clutch of moments.

This group was so special. Anyone who watched them could tell you the same thing. Their ability to work off one another and be as successful as they were this season was an accumulation of probably a hundred or more hours together both on and off the court over the last 4-5 years.

These relationships between the seniors and veteran starters, Kelly Heimburger and Amayah Kirkman, laid the foundation for an eventual 29-4 overall record which featured a 25-game winning streak, a perfect 20-0 Conference record, an outright PacWest regular season title, a third-straight PacWest tournament title, and the opportunity to host the NCAA DII West Regional tournament as the number one seed.

Going into the national tournament, head coach T.J. Hardeman shared a little about what this group of seniors means to him: 

“It’s satisfying as a coach to see that there’s been great growth on the court, off the court as young women, and as believers. [They’re] people that have represented themselves and the school and the team well, and they will continue to do that. So that’s just a neat feeling. I feel like that’s kind of as coaches what we’re called to do…build relationships, inspire transformation and you can see that [with them].”

The 2020-2021 season was the first year all four seniors plus Heimburger and Kirkman played together. That season, the team won the West Region championship to advance to the Elite Eight. It was Hardeman’s second trip to the Elite Eight in three years.

Since then, the program has fallen in the semifinal round of the West Regional tournament in each of the last three seasons, including most recently to Montana State Billings on their home court Saturday.

It was a devastating loss that frankly no one seemed to expect. After the Yellowjackets fired off five three-pointers in the first quarter to take an early 21-5 lead, people all over the Felix Event Center exchanged looks of “is this really happening?” 

While it felt like a shot to the heart at the moment, there were still 30 more minutes of game to be played. The Cougars came into the second quarter ready to start chipping at their deficit and they did, while holding Montana State Billings to a mere nine points.

The Cougars, down by nine at halftime, went into the second half with a hunger to keep their season alive. Heimburger, who played nearly 10 minutes less than her season average, hit some big shots to kick off the second half despite playing with only two fouls to give. Uyehara also fought to the very last buzzer finishing her last game in an Azusa Pacific uniform with 21 points.

But all the while, the Yellowjackets never loosened the grip on their lead, eventually providing them with a 66-56 win to draw the curtains on the Cougars’ remarkable season.

Despite an earlier exit than expected and the last time the seniors would be walking off the court, Uyehara, Casey and coach Hardeman entered the post-game press conference with wet eyes and sniffles but ultimately, their heads hung high knowing what they accomplished this year.

“That’s the saddest part… that the team relationship that we built is done now and it ended a week and a half earlier than we wanted but that would be crazy to discount all the weeks that have led up to this moment, months, years really that they have put into this program,” said Hardeman in his opening statement following the game.

Prior to the start of the tournament, I sat down with Uyehara and Hardeman to get a general idea of how they were feeling heading into the previous weekend.

While it seems like it would be easy to succumb to the nerves and fear of possibly falling short of their goal of winning a national title or the emotions of maybe stepping onto the court for the last time, they instead talked about the feelings of excitement, confidence and readiness that the entire team had.

These were emotions built up from every win of their 27-game winning streak (a new program record might I add) and from their ability to focus down the stretch when it really mattered, like in the team’s overtime win over Fresno Pacific just last weekend to win the third consecutive PacWest tournament title. But, these feelings listed above were also founded by stacking year after year of not only successful seasons but by building a cohesive, hard-working, selfless team culture that thrived by playing for one another not for oneself.

One of the biggest reasons for the program’s success is Hardeman’s standard for recruiting players with a team-first mentality. Players who are willing to go from being the stars on their high school or former college teams to maybe taking a backseat to the level of talent that surrounds them at APU.

“It’s where you’re at, and recognizing, ‘Hey, God’s given me the ability and talent. I’m here where God wants me to be,’” said Hardeman.

With that, Hardeman has really instilled into the culture the idea of “being a superstar in your role” in which he described Casey as being the perfect model of this mantra.

While she admitted that she didn’t expect to play much, the senior guard from Indiana took a chance moving out here to California and bought into the program’s winning culture founded upon selflessness. It was for this reason Hardeman recognized Casey in the locker room and in the press conference following her last game.

“She doesn’t play but you would never know that from our practices and workouts but she embodies what we want,” said Hardeman. “I don’t know if we’ve had a bigger superstar in their role than what Kayden did…with joy in her heart that made it fun to come to practice and get to work everyday.”

Like Casey exemplifies, to be a part of this winning program it requires a sense of humility and patience that not all players have, but the players who do see immense amounts of success as a result. In their own time of course.

“I will say [it] is a big adjustment from high school, where you were a stud on your team. Then you go to college and now you’re playing with 14 other girls who were studs on their teams, too. So it’s definitely an adjustment,” said Uyehara reflecting on her first season back in 2019. 

Coincidentally enough, Hardeman drew upon Uyehara as an example as he shared more about the difficult adjustment of swallowing your pride and recognizing the talent around you. Uyehara, now a four-year starter, two-time First Team All-PacWest performer and recently named to the All-Region Second Team, started her freshman year on the bench.

She saw action in her freshman year but it was by practicing with and learning from the girls before her that was what shaped her into the player she is now.

“My freshman year, we had a senior point guard, who was my mentor. She also had [a] torn ACL, I tore my ACL. So it was very easy for me to kind of connect with her and talk to her. But she took me under her wing and was like, ‘hey, use your speed…people here like can’t guard guards like that and go look to score.’”

It was this same advice that Uyehara has diligently reiterated to sophomore guard, Audrey Sayoc, who she has seemed to take under her wing the past few years.

“I remember when I was a freshman, running the point guard position is not an easy job, especially as a freshman or sophomore with a majority of fourth or fifth year seniors on the floor. I know how intimidating that can be sometimes in terms of your own mental game…But I think [Audrey] is growing confident, realizing like she’s the fastest point guard in all of entirety, and it’s been so much fun to see how much she’s just grown…This is the next point guard that’s going to tear it up in the PacWest. So just seeing her get that confidence and starting to really feel like they kind of like, at home in her position has been exciting.”

So while it might be hard to swallow the fact that Uyehara, Whitmore, Manuel and Casey won’t be taking the floor again donning that white Azusa Pacific uniform come November, their contributions to the success and upbringing of this program will be remembered as the next group, led by Heimburger and Kirkman, will chase what this group accomplished. 

“In the grand scheme of things this is just a stepping stone in our lives and I’m just so grateful to have been a part of this team at this time with these people. To experience all that we’ve experienced and to have the chance to show younger girls the road and the path that we are trying to take to get to the national title,” said Casey.