MISHAWAKA – It was a fitting end to what has been a wild Crossroads League season. Withstanding a late run by Grace College, the Bethel Pilots hit the shots it needed late to claim a 70-65 men’s basketball title Tuesday night at a packed Wiekamp Center.
Looking like the game was all but decided midway through the second half, Bethel had built a 17-point lead with 11:45 to go and were cruising. Toss in one of Grace’s heartbeats, Brandon Vanderhegghen, had just picked up his fourth and fifth fouls within a 13-second span at the 8:27 mark of the second half. Vanderhegghen had nine points in the game, but was leading a charge for the Lancers as they had begun to slowly chip away at the Pilot lead. It could have completely unraveled for the Lancers.
“For us, we have been doing this all season long, playing one good half and one bad half,” Grace College head coach Jim Kessler said. “Tonight we started slow and spotted them a nice cushion that took us a lot of effort to erase. I thought we fought back well, but we might have been too high to start the first half.”
Throughout the second half, Grace couldn’t seem to get the score within 10 points, but managed to finally break the mark with 4:45 to go when Logan Irwin hit a running jumper in the lane to pull the Lancers within eight at 60-52. Teammate Niko Read also awoke, scoring nine of his team-high 15 points in the final four minutes of the game. Read hit a pair of threes, then was fouled with 17 seconds left to play behind the arc and hit the subsequent trio of opportunities. Grace trailed by just two at that point, 67-65.
The Pilots, which are no strangers to conference championships after adding their 18th conference trophy and second consecutive to the case Tuesday night, were cool under pressure. Bethel hit seven of its eight free throw attempts in the final two minutes of the game and were 11-15 overall from the stripe. Grace, which were just 7-13 from the line and also missed 15 of its 21 three-point attempts in the game, left points on the court according to Kessler.
“If we could have made just a few more shots, I think this game is totally different in the second half,” Kessler said. “We are just so streaky offensively. You can do a lot of things defensively, but you have to be able to score. We outrebounded them, which tells me something about our team effort. I think the kids just became more aggressive. If we hit a couple free throws down the stretch, we’re in it.”
Bethel (26-7) had four players in double digits scoring, led by 22 from Zach Miller. Ryan Benner finished with 13 points and eight boards while Michael Mislan and Matt Schauss each tallied 10 points for the Pilots, which earned an automatic bid to the NAIA Division II Tournament next week.
Irwin added 14 points for Grace and Jared Treadway chipped in 11 in the loss. Greg Miller, who had averaged 18 points per contest coming into the championship game, was stifled by the Pilots’ defense and was held to just seven points but pulled down 11 rebounds.
Grace College (18-14), which started its Crossroads schedule 0-5 to conclude at 8-10 before beating Huntington and Spring Arbor in tourney play to reach the final, played 12 ranked teams on its schedule, the toughest schedule in the nation according to Kessler.
The Lancers will now move to working toward another championship, this time in the NCCAA Tournament which will be hosted at the Manahan Orthopaedic Capital Center later this month. With the loss Tuesday night, the Lancers are in position to accept an automatic bid to play in the tournament as the host school. Coach Kessler hopes the rally his team put together will help down the line.
“We remodeled, revised and to the team’s credit, we were able to change gears,” Kessler said of the dreadful start to the conference season. “To their credit, not a lot of teams could do that. A lot of teams would have chucked it in January when we were struggling. These guys weren’t going to do that.”