The win gave the fifth-seeded Lady Eagles (19-14) their first AAC championship and an automatic bid into the NAIA Division II tournament.
As has been a hallmark of its tournament run, Reinhardt won with its defense, holding third-seeded Union to just 17.9-percent shooting (7-of-39) in the second half, including just 1-of-11 from long range.
The AAC’s co-Player of the Year, Lindsey Waters, was held to just eight points — less than half her average.
“I’m a firm believer in defense. We’ve harped on that and worked on it all season long,” said Reinhardt coach Lindsey Huffman, who won the title in her first year at the Lady Eagles’ helm, in a university release. “I do believe that defense wins championships. It isn’t always fun, but our team bought in and saw the benefits of buckling down and playing hard on that side of the ball.”
On the other side of the ball, Johnson was unstoppable down low for the Lady Eagles. With 1:14 to go and Reinhardt trying to salt the game away, the sophomore made a layup and was fouled. Her three-point play gave the Lady Eagles an insurmountable nine-point lead, 53-44.
“Taylor just had that different determination (Saturday) that we often see out of her,” Huffman said. “She was really in tune offensively and wasn’t letting contact affect her near the rim. The way she kept her composure and kept on attacking the rim was a huge difference for us (Saturday).”
Reinhardt fell behind early, 13-4, as Union (21-10) came out on fire. The nine-point lead, however, proved to be the Lady Bulldogs’ largest of the game as Reinhardt slowly chipped away. Down 22-18, Hay made the Lady Eagles’ only 3-pointer of the game. Sarah Hewett followed with a basket off a turnover, giving Reinhardt its first lead of the game, 23-22.
Union responded with five straight points to take the lead back, 27-23, but Reinhardt answered right back with a Hay bucket. Both teams stayed scoreless for the final 2 minutes of the period.
As the second half got under way, Reinhardt continued to battle Union possession for possession. With the score tied at 39-all, Woodstock native and AAC all-tournament team member Kayla Aiken drove to the basket for a scoop shot in the paint, giving the Lady Eagles a lead it never relinquished.
After a basket by Union’s Amber Taylor with 7:49 left, the Lady Bulldogs were kept off the scoreboard for more than 6 minutes. During that time, the Lady Eagles inched the lead up to seven.
Hay was named the tournament’s most valuable player after averaging 16.7 points per game.
“I’m really not all that concerned with being (tournament MVP) at all,” the senior from Australia said in the release. “The way this team came together over the last three days has been amazing. Everyone came together and just fought tooth-and-nail to give everything they had. Being named MVP is great, but that honor really goes to the team.”
April Besley averaged more than 10 rebounds per game for Reinhardt during the tournament and was a stalwart defensively.
“April is invaluable to this team,” Huffman said. “She is the toughest, best rebounder for someone of her size that I have ever been around. She wants the ball and goes after every possession like it is the last.”
The NAIA tournament will take place March 6-12 in Sioux City, Iowa. The 32-team tournament bracket will be revealed Wednesday night at www.NAIA.org.