Tennessee Temple basketball coach Brac Brady had a gut feeling that Union University – Friday's foe in the NCCAA Mid-East Regional Semifinal – could not sustain its hot, high-energy attack.
Decisions like that are why first-year coach Brady has his team on the cusp of their first NCCAA regional championship since 2003.
Down by 13 points after five shaky minutes, the Crusaders spent the rest of the first half catching up, then used the last 20 minutes to take control of the contest and come away with a 75-69 victory over the Division II school in the night's second semifinal game at McGilvray Gymnasium.
Top-seeded Mid-Continent University, an NAIA school based in Highland, Ky., defeated would-be Cinderella Hiwassee, 95-90.
The two winners meet Saturday at 2 p.m. on Temple's home floor, with the champion moving to the eight-team NCCAA national event in Winona Lake, Ind.
Corieon Pearson, a sophomore guard out of Memphis, had the hot hand for Union from the opening tip and scored nine quick points as the Bulldogs jumped out to a 19-6 lead in just over five minutes. Temple hit a pair of 3s to stay within sight of the lead, but Brady was looking for a little bit more out of his team.
“Our game plan was to wear them down,” he said. “We had an edge with a deeper bench, so we played a lot of people.”
Daniel Marti, Union's 6-foot-8 sharpshooter from Spain, hit all three of his 3s in the first half to keep the Crusaders at bay – but just barely. Corey Sanders, who would go on to have another clutch performance Friday, broke Temple's scoring drought with a layup, then Weedlens Beauvil knocked down a 3-pointer. Moments late, big John Jones hit a layup, missed his foul shot but saw Travaris Clarke put back the miss. Jones scored again from up close and it was suddenly a four-point game.
The lead finally changed hands when BJ Whittaker buried a 3-pointer with 2:53 left in the first half to give the Crusaders a 32-30 lead. But the lead would swap hands five more times before the Bulldogs' Marti hit the last clutch shot of the half to lead 38-36.
Turns out, the Crusaders had the Bulldogs right where they wanted them.
Down five points two minutes into the second half, Temple put its attack into another, higher gear that Union simply could not match. With Brainerd product Sanders in control of the offense much of the time (and out of control a time or two, according to Brady), the Crusaders scored the next 12 points and built up a 17-2 run that suddenly put them out front, 55-45. Elliott Johnson scored six points in the big push, Rashaud Hall (serving double duty once Jones got into foul trouble) scored four and Whittaker hit a layup and a trey.
“Lately, we've had a tendency to get the lead, then give it right back,” Brady said afterward. “Fortunately, we kept the lead tonight.”
Barely. Union responded with eight straight points to make it a tight 55-53 with seven minutes to go. It was time for Sanders to step into the spotlight.
The 5-foot-9 junior, who had earlier combined with Whittaker for the night's most spectacular sequence that was capped by a 3-pointer, dazzled the Union defenders repeatedly with his ball handling skills. His layup made it 57-53, then his dish to Bell led to a three-point play and a 60-53 lead.
Union closed back within 64-62, but Johnson hit another clutch jumper and Bell tipped one in to counter an A.J. Roberts layup for Union. Down four, the Bulldogs were forced to foul, and to their eternal regret, Sanders was usually the man holding onto the ball for dear life.
After making 10 of 10 free throws in Thursday's win, Sanders hit 7 of 8 in the final 1:09 Friday to drive the final nail into Union's season. Sanders finished the night with 17 points, seven rebounds, four assists, two steals and only two turnovers.
“He's an interesting guy to coach,” Brady said. “Tonight was one of those nights where he did a lot of good things. He's usually a good free throw shooter, but the last two nights, he's gone a little bit above and beyond the call.”
Bell finished strong with 11 points and six rebounds, Travaris Clarke was a perfect 3 of 3 from 3-point range en route to 11 points and Whittaker finished with four assists to go with eight points for the 21-11 Crusaders.
Pearson scored 23, Marti 20 and Anthony Freeman 11 to lead Union (8-19). Marti also had 11 rebounds.
Hiwassee Rally Falls Short In Semifinal, 95-90
Mid-Continent University's Antonio Davis was unstoppable, hitting 10 of 11 field goals and finishing with 22 points and eight assists to fend off upset-minded Hiwassee, 95-90, in Friday's first semifinal game.
Both teams displayed balanced attacks, with five players on each scoring in double figures. Charles Peden matched his Mid-Continent teammate with 22 points and addded a game-high 11 rebounds, while Lee Ames scored 19 points and Gavin Scott ended the night with 17.
Hiwassee (8-24), which rallied with 54 second half points, could not close the gap as Mid-Continent shot 70 percent as a team (21 of 30) in the final 20 minutes.
The Tigers got a huge night from Justin Browner with 19 points and 10 assists. Jeff Golden hit 8 of 9 field goals and finished the night with 18 points and six rebounds; Cody Carson followed his big Thursday performance with 17 points and Joel Bailey came off the bench to score 13.
TENN. TEMPLE 75, UNION 69
UNION (69) – Bullock 4, Roberts 7, Anthony Freeman 11, Corieon Pearson 23, Daniel Marti 20, Faller, Leisey 2, Valdor 2.
TENN. TEMPLE (75) – Mack 7, Jones 7, Whittaker 8, Travaris Clarke 11, Beauvil 6, Ruise, Rashaud Bell 11, Corey Sanders 17, Quinn, Johnson 8.
Halftime: Union, 38-36. 3-point goals: Union 7 (Marti 4, Pearson 2, Roberts); TTU 7 (Clarke 3, Beauvil 2, Whittaker 2). Records: Union 8-19; TTU 21-11.
MID-CONTINENT 95, HIWASSEE 90
HIWASSEE (90) – Lazerick Boyd 10, Cody Carson 17, Justin Browner 19, Carpenter 6, Jeff Golden 18, High, Meadows, Davidson 7, Joel Bailey 13.
MID-CONTINENT (95) – Elkins 5, Gavin Scott 14, Lee Ames 19, Antonio Davis 22, Charles Peden 22, Larry Thompkins 10, Johnson, Gilmore, Randolph 3.
Halftime: Mid-Continent, 42-36. 3-point goals: Hiwassee 8 (Carson 4, Carpenter 2, Browner, Bailey); Mid-Continent 6 (Ames 3, Davis, Peden, Scott). Records: Hiwassee 8-24, Mid-Continent 18-13.