MILLIGAN COLLEGE, Tenn. --
Union guard Payton Ponzer
converted a three-point play with 11 seconds left to lift the fourth-seeded Bulldogs past third-seeded Reinhardt, 68-67 to win the 2011 AAC Men's Basketball Tournament on Wednesday night at Lacey Fieldhouse.
With the victory, Union improved to 16-15 on the year and captured the school's first conference championship since the 1971-72 season. The Bulldogs will also represent the AAC in the NAIA Division II National Tournament, which will begin March 9 in Point Lookout, Mo. The pairing will be announced Wednesday evening.
With the loss, Reinhardt ends their year with a 16-15 mark.
"I'm so proud of how these guys hung in there and battled back," said Union coach Sean Gillespie
. "That was a great Reinhardt team we came back on.
"Three weeks ago, we were dead in the water. But since then, we climbed and climbed and got back on top."
This marks the first time since 1968 that the Bulldogs will participate in the NAIA National Championship Tournament.
Gillespie was extremely proud of the play of two his guys in the second half.
"We do not win this game without Payton Ponzer
and Shawn Hadley
. They didn't have all the stats, but they stepped up when the team needed them," the second-year Bulldog coach said. "They changed the tone defensively and helped get us back in the game. And Payton hit some big buckets for us down the stretch. It was a team effort, but we don't win without those two guys."
To start the game, both teams were very strong on defense, with Union holding just a 7-2 lead in the games first seven minutes (Reinhardt's first basket of the game came at the 15-minute mark). The Eagles proceeded to finally get things going on the offensive end over the next five minutes, taking their first lead of the night at 12-11 with 9:26 remaining in the period. Reinhardt continued to ride the wave of momentum from this point, as the Eagles eventually opened up a 25-19 lead with 4:13 left in the half.
For the rest of the half, the Eagles never let up, riding their end of the first half run to a 37-25 lead going into the half. Union was led in the period by Ryan Young
, who had 11 points on 5-of-6 shooting, while Ishmael John led the way for Reinhardt scoring 16 points in the first 20 minutes.
To start the second half, Union came out firing and cut the Reinhardt lead in half (39-33) in the game's first three minutes, but Reinhardt remained in lead by eight points (43-35) with 14 minutes left . Union continued to chip away at the Eagle lead, getting it down to five at 49-44 with 9:29 left, then back at five again at 51-46 with 8:55 left.
Reinhardt, however, extended the lead back out to 10 points with 5:48 left (58-48). Union once again made a run at the lead, cutting it to five again (58-53), then eventually down to three after Ian Davis
made two free throws to cut the lead down to 62-59. After a bucket by the Eages, Turrell Morris
converted on a three-point play to make it 64-62 Reinhardt with 2:23 left.
After Reinhardt committed an offensive foul, Morris made another lay-in to tie the game up at 64-all with two minutes left. After a few stops on both ends, Reinhardt's Tyler Blackwell sunk two free throws to give Reinhardt the lead back at 66-64 with 41 seconds left in the ballgame.
On the next Union poss., Ponzer made one of two free throws, followed by Reinhardt's Steven Jenkins doing the same on his end to make it 67-65 Reinhardt with 30 seconds left.
On Union's possession, Ponzer converted on a wild sequence, sinking a lay-in to tie the game up at 67-all after being fouled with 11 seconds left. Ponzer then sunk the eventual game-winning free throw, giving the Bulldogs their first lead since the 8:53 mark of the first half.
On the game's final possession, Union played tough defense and forced a wild shot by John that banked out with three seconds left to give the Bulldogs the win.
Ironically, Union lost the 2010 AAC Championship Game on a last-second tip-in against UVa-Wise.
Overall on the night, Davis was Union's leading scorer with 20 points, while pulling down 10 rebounds to record a double-double. Young and Morris both ended with 13 points, as Morris pulled down a game-high 17 rebounds to notch his 16th double-double of the season.
Reinhardt was led in the losing effort by John, who scored a game-high 23 points.