POINT LOOKOUT, Mo. – With dogged tenacity, Union College battled its way to the top and was rewarded with the 2017 NAIA Division II Men's Basketball Championship, defeating Cornerstone (Mich.) 72-69 on Tuesday.
All season Union (35-3 overall) and Cornerstone (34-4 overall) seemed to be the true heavyweights of NAIA Division II, and that played out to be true as both squads delivered blow after blow. In the end, the Bulldogs were left standing as the national champion.
"This was a very hard game to play," said head coach Kevin Burton. "The (College of) Idaho game was a really hard game to play, but it was a little more free flowing. This game didn't go up and down as much, and it was a harder game to play and a harder game to find offensive things to go to, but we persevered.
"Cornerstone is a class act," he continued. "They have great talent and great coaching. For us to come up on top in a game against a team that's so storied in the NAIA, it's a pretty good accomplishment."
The scored was tied nine times, and lead changed hands on 14 occasions. And no lead was safe.
The Bulldogs led for much of the second half, yet the Golden Eagles did not quit until the final horn went off.
Tied at 45-all, Union reeled off nine straight points to open a 54-45 advantage. At the 9:02 mark, Paul Stone (SR/Danville, Va.) drained a 3-pointer from in front of the Bulldog bench, upping the margin to 56-47.
Still, Cornerstone would not bow out.
Cory Cox capped a 7-0 spurt with a 3-pointer from the wing, pulling the Golden Eagles within 66-63 with 2:46 to play. But like they've done all tournament, the Bulldogs answered as Lance Blakely (SO/Lexington, Ky.) hit a jumper in the lane to make it a five-point game with 2:08 on the clock.
Cornerstone never got it back to a one-possession game until Michael McLaughlin hit a 3-pointer at the buzzer to make the final 72-69 Union.
"All of us seniors, we talked about this every day since we won the conference tournament," said point guard Tyrone Sherman (SR/Chicago Heights, Ill.), who finished with nine points, six rebounds and six assists. "From that day forward, we talked about winning the national tournament, and I just wanted to do all I could to help my team to win."
Stone, who earned Most Outstanding Player honors, paced the Bulldogs with 26 points and nine rebounds. He led Union in scoring during the tournament with 108 total points for a 21.6 point-per-game average.
"I was just playing with a lot of heart," said Stone of his play. "With these guys, we battle every day in practice. They took the time to make each other better, be competitive every day in practice. I just want to thank God for everything. We put the work in this summer, and it pays off. It really does pay off."
Stone also tallied 28 rebounds and 13 steals on the weeks.
"He's a hard guy to guard," Burton said of Stone. "Smaller guys he can post up against, and bigger guys he can take outside and drive. And he's a good enough shooter that he can stretch them out."
Joining Stone on the All-Tournament Team are Sherman and Mike Martin (SR/Flint, Mich.), who finished with 17 points. Martin also received the Hustle Award for his superb play and effort throughout the tournament.
During the year, Martin average a little over 10 points per game, but he stepped up to average 13.6 this week. During the final three games, the senior poured in 53 total points.
"I have a lot of really good teammates, so I really don't have to score as much usually," Martin said. "So, when the opportunity presented itself, my teammates told me to keep doing what you're doing. I just got into a groove and took it from there.
"Tyrone (Sherman) does a good job at finding everybody," the forward added. "So, if you get into the right place, he's going to find you and you just got to make sure you're going to convert on it."
Not to be overlooked is Gerrard Newby (SR/Lexington, Ky. ), who finished his playing career at Union with his 18th double-double of the season with 12 points and 10 rebounds.
Burton was named the NAIA Division II Coach of the Year. The Bulldog closed out the season winning their final 33 games, a streak that was not discussed much if at all by the team.
"I don't think the word streak was spoken for however long it's been going on. It just hasn't," said Burton. "We haven't talked about it. After we win a game, they know on the next day it's time to focus on our next opponent."
This is the first NAIA team national championship for Union in any sport.