WINONA LAKE — One down, two to go.
The Grace College women’s basketball team opened Crossroads League Tournament play with a 75-65 win over visiting Huntington Tuesday night. They now advance to play top-seeded Marian on the road in Friday’s semifinals. At stake is a berth to the tournament championship game and a shot at the program’s first conference title.
“I’m just proud of them. They’ve battled, persevered through a lot this year, and the reward is a big win. We’ll see what happens down at Marian on Friday night,” said Grace head coach Scott Blum.
“We’re just excited to hopefully get another win and to have an opportunity to win a league championship, which we’ve never had an opportunity to do. It would be awesome to see these girls have that opportunity.”
After sweeping the Foresters in their regular season series, the Lady Lancers (17-14) trailed their guests 26-20 late in the second period but closed out the half on a 7-1 spurt capped off by Brooke Sugg’s triple from the top of the key on a Micaela Box assist to leave the score knotted at 27 at the intermission. Grace used 10-of-16 shooting in the third quarter to get out front, 54-47, headed into the final frame, then held Huntington (16-14) off at the line with 15 of 18 free throws over the game’s final 10 minutes to earn the right to advance opposite Marian.
“At halftime I think we were shooting 33 percent. I told the girls ‘We’re not going to win this game if we shoot 34 percent so we need to just be efficient.’ We really use those words when we’re practicing — get good possessions; we need a good possession to score. I didn’t realize we shot that well until the end of the game,” said Blum.
“The ball goes in, it makes you look good. The girls have been running our offense really well all year. I think what we’ve really focused on is the defensive end. When we play really good defense, our offense follows.”
Sugg knocked down 4 of 8 3-pointers on her way to a game-high 23 points, including 10 during the pivotal third stanza. Box scored four of her 10 points and passed out all four of her assists in the period as the sophomore DII Ursuline transfer continued to roll in her new home in Winona Lake.
“Right when we came back from Christmas Break when we went to Chicago, that’s when she started to get her groove,” explained Blum of Box. “I think it was just transferring in, new team and getting acclimated. I think since she was back in December she’s probably averaging about 10 points a game, so she’s been giving us 10, 12 points a game since Jan. 1.”
Box’s development as a consistent third scorer has been part of the Lancers’ recent run of success as Tuesday’s tournament quarterfinals represented their seventh win in the past nine games. But a big part of that run has had to do with the play on both ends of sophomore guard Virronica Drake, who put up a double-double Tuesday with 16 points and 11 rebounds to go with two assists and a steal.
It was Drake’s ninth straight game in double figures, and she earned much of her 16 at the line with nearly-perfect 9-of-10 free throw shooting. According to Blum, the Marion High School product’s offensive success has been keyed by her defensive game.
“V is the type of young lady, if you give her a challenge, she’ll take it. At the beginning of the year we always kind of put her on their player that wasn’t their scorer so she would kind of just roam around and get steals and rebounds. We felt to keep her engaged and in the game, we typically challenge her now to guard their best offensive player, someone who has been playing really well for them,” Blum explained.
“That has given her more focus on the offensive end and the defensive end. When she plays hard and plays well, our team goes with her.”
And now they’re going to the Crossroads League Tournament semifinals at Marian in Indianapolis Friday, scheduled for a 7 p.m. tip-off.
Grace lost both of its regular season meetings with the Knights (29-2), falling 69-60 at Marian on Jan. 9 and 76-51 at home versus on Feb. 7 as Marian ran through the CRL round robin with a 17-1 record to earn the league regular season championship. Should the Lancers advance, the tournament championship is set for Monday with the winner to receive an automatic bid to the NAIA National Championships.
“The girls have just been focused. Practices have been great the last two or three weeks,” Blum said. “Our ultimate goal is to get out to the NAIA nationals, and today we got three votes nationally ranked, so we’re like 34th. Of course only 32 go out there and we’re still on that cusp, but I just told the girls ‘We got the first one. You’ve got two more, and you can win yourself a conference championship, which has never happened at Grace College in the history of the women’s program.’ We’ve got a really, really good team at Marian. We’ve played them well both games and came up short, so we’ve just got to prepare the next two days and go up there and see what we can do.”
Also for Grace Tuesday, sophomore Lexi Minix scored nine points, and junior Pam Miller pulled down seven rebounds to help the Lancers to a 39-28 advantage off the glass.
Huntington was paced by Sarah Fryman’s 14 points, as well as 11 from Maddie Richer and 10 from Brooke Saylor, and Sam Hammel clutched 10 caroms.