POINT LOOKOUT, Mo. – It was a bit of a slugfest, but No. 1-seeded Union College got the job done and collected a 95-83 victory over No. 8 seed Aquinas (Michigan) on Wednesday in the opening round of the NAIA Division II Men’s Basketball National Championship.
With the win, the Bulldogs (31-3 overall) advance to the round of 16 for the second time in program history while setting the program record for wins in a season with their 31st on the year.
Both teams struggled to maintain a constant flow to the game as the teams combined for 48 fouls. Aquinas got on a bit of a roll early, using a 7-1 spurt to jump out to a 17-11 lead with 15:19 left in the half.
But then, the Bulldog offense began to click.
Fueled by six points from Jaylen Daniel, Union embarked on a 20-5 run to break open a 31-22 advantage. Tyrone Sherman capped off the rally with an old-fashioned, three-point play 10:31 remaining.
Daniel scored 14 of his 19 points in the first half, which proved to be vital in keeping the Bulldogs afloat as the fouls continued to mount.
“Jaylen’s shot-making and finishing at the rim was really important (to keeping Union in the lead),” said head coach Kevin Burton. “And Sherman’s driving and play-making was very, very important; a huge key in helping us maintain control.”
Union never trailed again, but Aquinas kept things interesting, never allowing the tournament’s No. 1 overall seed to pull away. The Saints cut the margin to one twice before the Bulldogs were able to push the lead to seven following a Sam Natt bucket with 38 seconds left in the half. Yet, Aquinas scored the final three points of the period, making it 56-52 at the break.
A total of 25 fouls were called in the first half alone with 10 players – five on each team, having at least two fouls. Union had two with three.
“As odd as it sounds, I thought our foul trouble might’ve gotten us dialed in on how to guard more correctly,” the Bulldog coach said. “The way we defended in the second half was more like what we had talked about and work on coming into this game. In the first half, we were aggressive but aggressive without purpose. The second half, we were solid and purposeful in everything we were doing defensively.”
The Saints kept the pressure on in the second half, pulling even at 59-all following a Ryan Schall layup with 14:45 to go. The Bulldogs regrouped and raced out to a 72-62 lead with 10:16 to play. Aquinas managed to get the margin down to 84-80 following a pair of Schall free throws at the 4:08 mark, but that was as close as it would get.
Sherman scored seven of his game-high 27 points in the waning moments to seal the Bulldogs’ 95-83 victory.
Sherman was solid at the foul line, going 11-for-13 in netting his season high in points. Paul Stone followed with 22 points for Union.
In addition to correcting its defensive issues in the second half, Union went to work on the boards even more. Aquinas owned a 20-15 rebounding edge in the first half with nine offensive boards; however, Union posted five-rebound advantage in the second half as both teams finished with 36 for the game.
Burton noted his pleasure with how Sherman, Stone, and Lance Blakely took over and led the team, especially during the second half.
“Their mentalities of approaching the game, especially in the second half, was real profession and mature, and it was fun to watch,” he said. “I didn’t say a whole in the second half because they were doing it, and I like that.”
Blakely came off the bench to score seven points and grab three rebounds.
For Aquinas (19-15 overall), Jeremy Williamson led the way with 21 points, followed by Jake Bullock’s 19 points. Frank DeVos and Opeyemi Sholesi chipped in 14 and 12 points, respectively.
Union advances to the round of 16 for only the second time in program history and will face the winner of the College of Idaho-Dakota Wesleyan (S.D.) on Friday at 10:15 p.m. ET.