WINONA LAKE – The “free” throw line was anything but that for the Grace College men’s basketball team Tuesday night.
A tough night from the 15-foot stripe cost the Lancers a victory.
Plain and simple.
Grace made just 10-21 free throw attempts in a disappointing 61-60 loss to No. 2 Indiana Wesleyan in a key Crossroads League contest.
The Lancers missed four of their final six free throw tries in the final 2:41 to allow the Wildcats to escape with the win at the Manahan Orthopaedic Capital Center.
Indiana Wesleyan hit 15-20 from the line, including a pair by junior Zac Vandewater with 4.2 seconds to play for the game winners. Vandewater, who played at Whitko High School, led the winners with 12 points.
Grace, which falls to 5-3 overall and 0-2 in league play, had one final possession. After each team took a timeout, a desperation 3-point try by Logan Irwin was well off the mark at the final horn.
“I couldn’t be more proud of our guys tonight,” said Grace coach Jim Kessler. “They played their hearts out. This was our best effort of the season. This was the effort we were looking for. The guys executed offensively and defensively and did everything we asked of them.
“You can’t go 10-21 from the line. We had the opportunities at the line and we gave it away. We were right in position to put it away. Free throws have been our nemesis in all three of our losses. Wesleyan knows they escaped tonight. This shows we can play with anyone.”
The Wildcats, who improve to 9-1 overall and 2-0 in conference action, have won the last five league championships. The teams split last season with Grace winning 80-77 at home and IWU prevailing 66-56 in Marion.
The game was anything but what was expected on paper. The Lancers came in third in the nation by averaging 95.7 points-per-game. Wesleyan was 11th in scoring in the country at 92.9 ppg. Both teams were held to season low point totals. The Wildcats made just seven field goals in the second half, but hit 14-17 free throws to avoid the upset.
Grace used a 12-2 run late in the game to turn a 52-46 deficit into a 58-54 lead on a driving bucket by Irwin with 4:46 to play. Irwin, however, hit just 2-4 free throws to open the door late for the Wildcats. Senior R.J. Mahurin, who played his first three years at Indiana State, drained a huge triple from the baseline to cut the Lancer lead to 60-59 with 1:29 to play. Grace junior Niko Read then missed a pair of free throws with 33.2 seconds left. R. J. Mahurin then missed a jumper, but Lane Mahurin tracked down the rebound and Vandewater was fouled.
Grace is now shooting .668 percent from the line as a team through its first eight games. Read is shooting .667 from the stripe, while Logan (who played last year at Stetson University) is at .538.
The Wildcats, who beat Bethel 88-82 last Tuesday as R.J. Mahurin poured in 33 points, have won four in a row. IWU won Tuesday night despite foul trouble all game long and having top scorers Jordan Weidner (19.4) and Mahurin (18.4) combine for just 13 points. The pair only played a total of 38 minutes collectively in the win due to foul trouble.
“Our defense did a nice job on them,” Kessler said. “A big key was our defense on Weidner. We did a good job helping on him. We doubled some on No. 33 (R.J. Mahurin) and I thought Jared Treadway came in for us and did a good job on him.”
The Wildcats, who hit 15-33 on 3-point tries in their win one Bethel, were just 4-18 from distance Tuesday night. IWU shot 21-52 overall from the field and the Lancers were 23-52.
Grace, which bounced back from a bad 75-66 loss at Taylor in the conference opener last Tuesday, led 32-31 at halftime. The lead should have been larger as the Wildcats had 12 turnovers in the opening half, but the Lancers were just 5-11 from the line and missed several point-blank shots.
Senior Greg Miller, who hails from Akron, scored 13 points and had a team-high six rebounds for Grace. The 6-6 forward, who was bothered by a wrist injury, entered play Tuesday night averaging 23.6 ppg. Read scored 13 points and Irwin had 11 to go with five rebounds, four assists and four steals. Caleb Featherston and Brandon Vanderhegghen each had eight.
Vandewater, a 6-5 junior, was the lone Wildcat to hit double figures with 12 points. Lane Mahurin had nine, while D.J. Bettinger and Nathan Bubash each had eight.
The two teams will meet again at IWU on Jan. 28.