WINONA LAKE – The 2018 version of the NCCAA Women’s Basketball National Championship has a different feel for the Grace College program.
Playing in its ninth tournament in the past 10 years, preparing and competing is nothing new. But sitting on its highest-ever seed, a No. 4, and coming in winning eight of its past 11 games, head coach Scott Blum and company feel pretty good about its chances.
“The field is not as strong or as deep as it has been in the past, and this may be one of my best teams, and I told the girls you have a really good chance to win this thing,” Blum said, overseeing shoot-around Tuesday morning at the Manahan Orthopaedic Capital Center. “You get game one, and then we’ll deal with whoever Thursday. We can beat whoever. I feel we are one of the top 25 teams in the NAIA nationally, so night in and night out, you have to go out and prove it on the court.”
Grace (18-15) will get the luxury, if it is one, of playing a familiar foe in the first round, No. 5 Emmanuel (16-11). Grace and Emmanuel have hooked up four times in the past eight years in the NCCAAs, including last year’s 73-53 Lady Lions victory in the first round. Grace was able to win its final two games of the 2017 tournament, but look for a better start this tournament. Grace has only finished in the top four of the tournament once, that in 2012, a third-place finish.
Where Blum feels his team is best suited is through its momentum, which has Grace entering the tourney after a 75-69 win in the NCCAA Midwest Regional at Concordia, which happens to be the No. 2 seed in this year’s tourney. Grace’s three losses in their 11-game span to end the season all were to nationally ranked teams, including two to NAIA power Marian and one to Taylor, both schools making the NAIA Sweet 16 before bowing out of the tournament.
“The girls are playing really well, and we’ve had two really good days of practice coming in,” Blum said. “The girls are feeling loose and excited, and they seem to be really focused. They have one goal in mind, and that’s to win this thing. They have the ability to get it done this year.”
Helping the Lady Lancers make their late charge has been the play of his guards. Blum, who likes to run a four guard, one forward/center set when possible, has seen his guards do most of the heavy lifting. Vironnica Drake, who is dropping in 13 points and five rebounds a night. was named the NCCAA Player of the Week after a big game at Concordia with 16 points, five rebounds and two steals. Fellow backcourt mate Brooke Sugg, who is on the mend from a devastating ACL tear last season, has been a scoring force leading the team at 14 points per night, but at 5’1″ has pulled down 61 rebounds and also has 34 assists and 34 steals.
“Our goal is to treat this like any other game, but know that we our playing on our own court for the chance at a national championship,” Sugg said. “Not a lot of teams get the chance to say that. Our plan is to just stick to who we are and what we do. We’ll prepare for Emmanuel like any other team, but we just want to do our thing and not get outside our element and stick to our game. Trust the work we have put in all season is going to pay off.”
Micaela Box has come on this season, giving the team nine points a night and 59 total assists, and the lone senior in the rotation, Kelsie Peterson, is pitching in 6.6 points per game, but has eclipsed the double-digit scoring mark eight times, including a 19-point effort against IUSB earlier this season.
The interior play for Grace has been helpful, and will be a key in the tournament. The play of Pam Miller has been important, where her offensive rebounds, 70, almost total her defensive rebounds, 83. Working Lexi Minix from her traditional guard position after an ultra-successful career at Oregon-Davis High School to now a combo forward has seen some traction, and freshman Kaylie Warble has given good minutes inside as she continues to mature in the college game.
The Lady Lions are led by the scoring prowess of Mikayla Trombley (11.5) and Taylor Delasbour (10.5), but also gets a handful of contributions from Lochlain Corliss, who averages 8.6 points, 7.1 rebounds and 4.1 assists per game. Emmanuel comes into the tournament with just a 6-4 mark in its last 10, but won its NCCAA Regional game over Carver Bible 64-41.
Grace and Emmanuel will meet at approximately 5:15 p.m. Wednesday in the combined NCCAA National Championship format, with the men’s tournament interwoven into the week’s excitement at the Manahan Orthopaedic Capital Center. The top seed in the women’s bracket is Mid-America Christian, which plays No. 8 Yellowstone Christian in the 3:30 game Wednesday. Opening play in the women’s draws are No. 3 Greenville and No. 6 Southwestern Christian, followed by No. 2 Concordia and No. 7 Hiwassee.
The men’s tournament will go on simultaneously, with No. 3 Mid-America Christian and No. 6 Bluefield opening the men’s bracket at noon on Wednesday, followed by No. 2 Emmanuel and No. 7 College of the Ozarks. No. 1 Southwestern Christian and No. 8 Life Pacific as well as No. 4 Central Christian and No. 5 Warner will play Wednesday night.
Games will continue all day Thursday and Friday, and the championship finals will be Saturday at 2 p.m. for the women and 5 p.m. for the men. The Parade of Champions will happen following the Grace game Wednesday afternoon.