by Matt Bos-Media Coordinator
Point Lookout, Mo. Union’s wait for its first ever national title is over as the No.1 Bulldogs defeated No. Cornerstone (Mich.) 72-69 in the 2017 NAIA Division II Men’s Basketball National Championship game played tonight at the Keeter Gymnasium on the campus of College of the Ozarks.
Union closes the season with a school record 35-3 mark, the most wins among NAIA Division schools, winning its 33rd straight game.
Paul Stone, the championship’s most valuable player, led Union with 26 points and grabbed nine rebounds, despite playing most of the final 10 minutes with four fouls. Mike Martin, who earned the championship hustle award, added 17 points and five boards while Gerrard Newby tallied a double-double with 12 points and 10 rebounds.
With the score knotted at 45 at the 14-minute mark, the ninth and final tie of the game, Union went on a decisive 14-2 run. The Bulldogs clamped down defensively, holding Cornerstone without a field goal for over six minutes.
Cory Cox knocked down a jumper to end the Golden Eagles’ scoring drought, cutting the lead to 61-52. Cornerstone stayed within contact, thanks in large part to the play of junior Kyle Steigenga, whose two free throws put his team down just six, 66-60 with three minutes left.
A Cox three-pointer made it a one possession game (66-63) but Union answered with consecutive baskets by Lance Blakely and Martin, giving the Bulldogs a seven-point lead with just over a minute left.
Cornerstone guard Michael McLaughlin drained a long three from the top of the key to make the score 70-66 and Union failed to convert on a 1-and-1, giving the Golden Eagles’ hope with under 20 seconds left. Cornerstone missed a three-pointer and Newby was fouled after controlling the rebound. The senior calmly made two free throws to put the game out of reach, despite a last-second three-pointer by McLaughlin that made the final margin three points.
“This was a very hard game to play…hard to find offensive things to go to, but we persevered,” said Union head coach Kevin Burton. “Cornerstone is a class act. 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 top two overall seeds played a very tight first half with neither team able to pull away with an extended scoring run. Cornerstone shot nearly 50% over the first 20 minutes, going to its strong inside game coupled with the strong play-making of McLaughlin. Union relied on its three-point shooting, going 7/14 from beyond the arc, in a first half that ultimately ended with a 36-35 Bulldogs lead.
Steigenga carried Cornerstone on both ends of the floor behind a 30-point, 10 rebound effort in a full 40-minutes of court time. It was his fourth double-double of the championship. Playmaking senior guard McLaughlin finished with 16 points and Cox, another senior, closed with 12 points. Sam Vander Sluis grabbed 14 rebounds, finishing the championship with 69 boards, second most all-time at the D-II Championship.
Cornerstone shot 41% for the game and was limited to 33% over the final 20 minutes. They finish the season with a 34-4 overall record.
“It was a tough end to a great season,” said Cornerstone head coach Kim Elders. “Union was so tough defensively and took us out of some things we do well. They also created pressure that transitioned into turnovers and points.”
2017 NAIA Division II Men’s Basketball Championship All-Tournament Team:
Sam Vander Sluis-Cornerstone
Lane Mahurin-Indiana Wesleyan
Bob Peters-Indiana Wesleyan
Bryan McGriff-Eastern Oregon
*denotes most outstanding player
2017 NAIA Division II Men’s Basketball Most Outstanding Player-Paul Stone, Union
2017 NAIA Division II Men’s Basketball Championship Hustle Award-Mike Martin, Union
NABC/NAIA Division II Coach of the Year-Kim Elders, Cornerstone
NAIA Division II National Coach of the Year-Kevin Burton, Union
Dr. James Naismith/Emil Liston Team Sportsmanship Award-Corban
Buffalo Funds Four Star Champions of Character Award-Rio Grande