WINONA LAKE – The Grace College men’s basketball team did not defend its Crossroads League tournament championship the way it had imagined Wednesday night.
The host Lancers exited in the first round to Marian by dropping a 62-54 final.
The NAIA No. 17 Lancers had a number of long scoring droughts to allow the Knights to escape the Orthopaedic Capital Center with the upset.
The loss eliminates Grace from obtaining an automatic bid to the NAIA National Championships. The Lancers will await the revealing of the NAIA Division II bracket on Feb. 27 to see if the team will be rewarded with an at-large invitation. Grace is hoping for a fifth trip to Branson, Mo., in the past six years.
Grace started with a lack of energy, allowing the Knights (17-12) to take the first lead of the game. Over the first four minutes of action, the Lancers committed five turnovers and missed their first three shots. Grace came into the contest on a three-game winning streak and had split the regular-season series with the Knights. The Lancers had won 59-54 in overtime at home on Jan. 15 and lost 61-59 at Marian on Feb. 5.
The Lancers (21-9) seemed to find their rhythm when a 3-pointer by Niko Read jumpstarted seven unanswered points. After Elliot Smith was fouled on another 3-point attempt and converted all three free throws, Grace had its largest lead of the game at 19-14.
But Grace’s second offensive dry spell hit in the final five minutes of the half. The Lancers did not make a field goal for the last 4:50, allowing Marian to score eight straight points and claim a 31-27 advantage at halftime.
If the start to the first half was bad for the Lancers, the beginning of the second half was even worse. Grace went nearly nine minutes after halftime without adding another point to the scoreboard. The Lancers missed their first 10 shots of the second half.
Taking into account Grace’s offensive struggles between the end of the first half and the start of the second half, the Lancers played 13:24 of basketball without making a field goal.
A layup from Bruce Grimm Jr. with 11:26 to play broke Grace’s drought to cut Marian’s lead to 39-29.
Greg Miller did his best to put the Lancers back within striking distance with six points in a four-minute span. Grace trimmed their deficit to six points on three occasions, but each time Marian had the answer.
With 2:07 to play Marian held a 56-43 lead before a valiant Lancer comeback. Grimm made two quick shots in the paint, and Miller buried a 3-pointer to bring the Lancers within 56-50 with 1:22 remaining.
But the Knights hit six free throws over the final 70 seconds to hold on for the upset.
The Lancers made 18-of-53 from the floor (34 percent), including 3-of-18 from beyond the arc.
Marian hit 17-of-45 from the floor, including 6-of-19 from beyond the arc. The Knights were 22-of-31 from the free throw line compared to 15-of-19 for the Lancers.
Miller was the lone offensive bright spot for Grace with 22 points and five rebounds on 8-of-13 shooting. Grimm tallied 11 points and four rebounds, and Read chipped in five points and five boards off the bench.
Jake Stafford led the Knights with 16 points. Jess Chadwell scored 12 points, Nick Achilles (a native of South Bend) 11 and Jason Riley 10 for the winners.
In other first-round tournament games Wednesday night, Bethel topped Saint Francis 89-73, Huntington defeated Taylor 81-69 and Taylor stopped Spring Arbor 70-62.
The tournament continues Saturday with a pair of semifinal contests at Marian plays at Bethel and Huntington travels to Taylor. The winners then meet in the championship game on Feb. 26 for an automatic bid to the NAIA National Championships next month in Branson, Missouri.