KINGSPORT, Tenn. - Second-seeded Union led from wire-to-wire in defeating No. 4 seed Milligan (Tenn.) in capturing the 2014 Appalachian Athletic Conference Women's Basketball Tournament championship on Saturday.
With the victory, the Bulldogs (24-8 overall) advances to the NAIA National Championship Tournament, which will be held in Sioux City, Iowa, on March 12-18.
Union had been in six of the last eight AAC Tournament championship games, winning four of them.
"There's a lot of pressure on our kids because of what our former players have done because they're expected to be here," said Union coach Tim Curry.
Under Curry, the Bulldogs have won five AAC Tournament championships and made five trips to the national tournament. The one title Union lost was last season.
"Losing in the championship game last year in a close one like this one was not easy. For our kids that were with us and not win it, I happy for them," said Curry. "I wanted our seniors to play there last game, whenever that might be, in the national tournament."
Union's last tournament title came in 2012, and this year's squad is very similiar. The 2012 Bulldogs had to play without Amber Taylor for the entire second half of the season. This year's squad lost Aaliyah Lumson since December, and Macy Clontz suffered a season-ending injury in the next to last regular-season game of the year. Yet, Union continued to find away to keep on winning.
"The (2012) team came together and figured out how to play, and this year's team has done the same thing," said Curry. "We've lost two kids that started every game."
Taylor, who did not get to enjoy the 2012 championship, earned Tournament MVP honors, scoring 19 points, nine assists and grabbing seven rebounds in the title game. Joining her on the All-Tournament Team from Union are Haley Perkins and Lydia Nash.
The Bulldogs led from wire-to-wire, yet it was anything but easy wrapping the victory. Union appeared to have all the momentum going into the half when Taylor swished a 40-foot shot at the buzzer to make it 41-30 at the break.
However, Milligan came out scrapping in the second half.
"We got ourselves in a great situation going into the half, but you knew they weren't going to go away if we didn't put them away in the first five minutes, and we didn't," said Curry. "And you knew from that point on, it was going to be a battle."
An old-fashioned, three-point play by Hayley Wyrick capped a 9-2 run, pulling Milligan within 43-39 with 15:56 to go. Union answered with seven consecutive points for a 10-point advantage, but the Buffaloes countered with another 9-2 surge to make it 55-52 at 7:26 mark.
Nash hit a pair of free throws to cap an 8-1 run, lifting Union to a 63-53 lead with 4:34 still on the clock. Not dead yet, Milligan stormed back with a 10-2 rally to make it 65-63 with 2:04 left. Allison Jones accounted for the Buffaloes' last five points of the run, hitting a 3-pointer and a layup.
Coming up big, Nash hit back-to-back buckets to give Union a six-point lead 1:15 to play as Union scored seven of the final 10 points of the game to wrap up the 72-67 decision.
Nash finished the game with 14 points, while Perkins added 10.
For Milligan, Kayla Kelly poured in a game-high 26 points with Jones following with 13. Wyrick added 11.
Kelly and Wyrick made the All-Tournament Team as did Tennessee Wesleyan's Cody Houck.
Union and Tennessee Wesleyan, which won the conference regular-season championship, will both advance to the NAIA National Tournament. The pairings for nationals will be announced Wednesday.