By Alex Brown
For the second year in a row, the Union University Lady Bulldogs celebrated a NAIA National Championship in front of a raucous, red-clad crowd at Oman Arena.
The 73–65 victory over Azusa Pacific University Tuesday was a tense contest that saw Union pull away late after a halftime tie.
Head Coach Mark Campbell, who now has four national titles in his 11-year tenure, was named the Phyllis Holmes Coach of the Year after the game.
“I was thankful for the (women),” Campbell said. “It’s nice to watch the (players) step up and make plays.”
Sarah Chan, junior history major, led the team with 20 points and also collected 10 rebounds. The Lady Bulldog center, who was named tournament Most Valuable Player, gave all the credit to the team.
“We brought it home,” Chan said. “I have never been more proud of a team than I am tonight. It’s togetherness (and) selflessness.”
That sentiment is how Campbell defines the team’s success.
“My sense of accomplishment is the progression of the kids in a positive direction,” Campbell said. “This year’s team really went from one place to another.”
The Lady Bulldogs, who had burned opponents with hot shooting, went cold in the final. However, they dominated the glass, out-rebounding Azusa 40–26, including 18 offensive boards.
Union’s 16 second-chance points proved to be the difference in the game. Senior forward Ashley Lillard, psychology major, led the way with 11 rebounds, five of them offensive.
While Lillard provided a spark off the bench, the Lady Bulldogs’ starting corps all had big contributions. Point guard Kayla Hudson, junior political science major, chipped in 14 points, with all four of her field goals coming from behind the arc. Sophomore guard Lavanda Ross, accounting major, also scored 14.
Jessica Graves, senior journalism major, put in 10 points and finished with five rebounds, four assists and three steals. Kaitlin Dudley, senior physical education and health major, was held to seven points on the night, but found other ways to contribute, snagging five rebounds and dishing out six assists, including a feed to Ross on an inbounds play that sealed the win.
The play, which Campbell said was a designed call named Bulldog, came after an Azusa foul that gave Union the ball in their own end. As a crowd of players scrambled near center court, Ross emerged behind the defense, and Dudley found her streaking teammate for an uncontested layup that gave the Lady Bulldogs a seven-point lead with 26 seconds remaining and sent the crowd into celebration mode.
Chan, who scored 12 second-half points, said her team’s energy and persistence down the stretch enabled them to claim the title. Praising her team, Chan said the MVP award was a humbling honor.
“I really didn’t expect it,” Chan said. “It’s a privilege.”
In the semifinal game against Oklahoma City University, Union entered halftime trailing by seven.
Held to five first-half points, Dudley unloaded a barrage of buckets in the second, boosting the Bulldogs into the lead.
While Dudley hit three shots from beyond the arc, she did much of her damage on the drive, employing ball fakes to find open looks for herself and her teammates. After Oklahoma City tied it with a minute remaining, Dudley found Lillard down low. Lillard drew a foul and calmly sank the game-winning free throws.
Although Union faltered twice with chances to clinch the game at the free throw line, Ross blocked a desperation three-point attempt at the buzzer to seal the victory.
Dudley, who missed a late free throw, said she felt responsible for not sealing the game and was relieved when the final shot was denied.
“I was so nervous standing there on the sideline,” Dudley said. “I would have felt so bad if we would have lost.”
Despite the dramatic finish, Dudley’s performance was ultimately enough to propel the Lady Bulldogs to the win.
Hudson surpassed the all-time Union assist mark in the NAIA opener, getting six assists to pass Lisa Hutchen’s record of 611. Hudson’s total now stands at 627 career assists.