The second seeded Union Spartans took on the sixth seeded James Kenan Tigers Thursday evening in the Tri-County Conference Tournament semifinals. The Spartans won the game 53-40, but were tested by the Tigers for much of the game.
The Spartans struggled early in the opening period, as they were unable to score until the 5:01 mark of the quarter. However, the Spartan defense had allowed only 4 points in those three minutes, and quickly took a 7-6 lead. After exchanges in baskets, James Kenan led 11-9 at the end of the first quarter.
In the second quarter, the Spartans either scored, or turned the ball over. The turnovers were allowing James Kenan, who was struggling shooting the ball, to stay in the game. Desmond Faison knocked down two turnaround jumpers in the quarter and Cullen Cottle knocked down two 3-pointers to give the Spartans the lead. However, the Tigers fought back and tied the game going into the break, with the halftime score knotted at 24.
The third quarter was a turning point. Coach Tim Pope of Union inserted three players off the bench — Cameron Carter, Cameron Spearman and Cullen Cottle — and they provided a huge burst of energy.
“The three C’s were huge for us,” Pope said. “Cameron, Cameron, and Cullen came in, played great defense and brought a completely different vibe to the game. They really got momentum turned in our favor, and I think the biggest play of the game was when Cameron Carter took the charge in the third when the game was really tight. That play seemed to really turn the momentum of the game.”
Cameron Spearman scored 3 points in the quarter, and Brandon Lovette’s two buckets, along with stiffling defense (allowing only 5 points in the quarter) allowed Union to take a 7-point lead into the final quarter, 36-27.
Cameron Carter opened the fourth quarter up for the Spartans with an aggressive drive to the basket past the Tiger defender for a lay-up, then Natrone Banks made a jumper to take the Spartan lead to 40-27. The rest of the game included trips to the free throw line, where they struggled. Union went just 12-29 from the foul line for the game, which allowed the Tigers to hang around longer than they should have been able to. However, Union made enough to keep their lead. After a Cameron Spearman lay-up, Desmond Faison jumper, and a Damarius Davis dunk for the exclamation point on the win, the Spartans were on their way to the conference tournament championship game for the second straight season.
Brandon Lovette led the way with 11 points for the Spartans, while Cullen Cottle had 6, Natrone Banks had 8, and Desmond Faison had 10 points and 8 rebounds.
Last season the Spartans lost to Wallace Rose Hill in the conference championship game. Tonight’s game will feature a rematch of these two teams with a conference tournament championship on the line.
When asked what a conference tournament championship would mean to this program, Pope said “Well it would be big. We played Wallace last year in the championship game and lost, they’ll be hungry because we beat them last time, and I hope our guys are hungry too.”
The Spartans haven’t won a conference tournament championship in five years, so expect a valiant effort from Union this evening. The game is played at Union High School, and will tip off approximately at 7:30 p.m.