WINONA LAKE — It wasn’t the win the Lady Lancers had hoped to close their season on, but it was a win nonetheless, and a pretty significant one to boot.
After falling out of contention for an NCAA national title with an opening round loss to Emmanuel, host Grace rallied with two straight wins at the tournament, salvaging fifth place with a dominant, 87-46 win over Hiwassee at the Manahan Orthopaedic Capital Center Friday evening.
Friday’s finale pushed the Lancers out to a 20-16 final record, tying a program best for wins in a season alongside the 2011-12 squad that reached the high mark first.
“Of course our goal here was to win a national championship. We came up short the first night, and now you’ve got to set some goals that we can stay motivated for the next two games,” said Grace head coach Scott Blum. “We were 18-16 after that loss to Emmanuel, and two more wins gets us to 20 wins. We’ve only had one other team in the history of Grace College women’s basketball to get 20 wins.
“Proud of the girls. Just a great way to finish the year.”
Grace took the suspense out of Friday’s consolation game relatively early.
The first quarter featured a trio of ties and three lead changes, but the Lancers took their final lead on a Micaela Box pull-up jumper off the elbow late in the frame. That jump shot was part of a run of 20 unanswered points stretching from Lauren Godfrey’s 3 from the top of the key at the 2:04 mark of the first to Vironnica Drake’s two free throws drawing contact from Valerie Cheek at the 5:39 stop of the second. Grace entered halftime with a comfortable, 38-21 cushion, used an 11-of-20, 30-point third period to balloon that lead out to 30 points headed into the final stanza and continued to build to the lopsided margin of more than 40 points.
“I think the girls were focused tonight. We talked about being efficient on the offensive end — getting good possessions offensively — and just playing really smart defensively,” said Blum. “Our team typically all year, we play good defense, our offense goes. When the ball doesn’t go in the basket sometimes we don’t play very good defense. I don’t think we hit some shots at the start, but once we got in that flow I think defensively we picked it up and then offensively we picked it up and just kind of kept going through the rest of the game.”
All 12 Grace players saw significant minutes Friday, and every one of them made the scoring column as Blum repeatedly substituted five at a time and went to the bench early and often.
Brooke Sugg connected on 4 of 7 3-pointers on her way to a game-high 16 points, and Drake scored with 4-of-6 efficiency en route to 15 points. With that 15-point finish, Drake — who started the season as a sort of defensive specialist for Grace but transformed herself into a consistent offensive producer midway through the year — netted double figures for the third time in as many games at the NCCAA tilt, earning herself all-tournament honors.
“As they pick a valuable player, I think that was a great pick because she was consistent all three games,” said Blum of Drake. “She’s been shooting the ball well in the last probably couple weeks. She’s been solid on the defensive and offensive end, and she’s only a sophomore so it makes me happy seeing her come back with the rest of the group.”
Kaylie Warble pulled down 10 rebounds to lead all players in that category followed by Pam Miller’s nine, and the front court duo combined with Brooke Treadway for 18 points as the Lancers finished with 32 points in the paint opposite Hiwassee. Lauren Godfrey scored eight, Lexi Minix passed out five assists and recorded a pair of steals, and senior Kelsie Peterson closed out her collegiate career with eight points, five rebounds and an assist.
The lone senior on Grace’s roster and a four-year starter with the program, Peterson will be missed, says Blum.
“Kelsie, love her to death. She came in as a freshman here and pretty much started about every game all four years of her career,” he said. “She struggled with a lot of injuries. Last year she played all the time, basically she had surgery in June or July, probably should’ve had surgery at the start of the year. She’s battled through a lot of injuries, persevered through a lot of things, and she’s grown so much in the last two years — matured spiritually, became a great leader on the team. Just a great way to see her go out, winning the last two games and getting 20 wins.”
Hiwassee had three players finish in double digits as Ny’Asia Holmes posted her way to 14 points and seven rebounds, J’Lynn Majors scored 11 with five rebounds, and Kathaleen Alomoar scored 10 off the bench for the Tigers, who stumbled to an 11-of-25 (28.1 percent) shooting mark against a stalwart defensive effort by the home team.
While Grace must bid goodbye to Peterson, the rest of the young crew is expected back next season, and the future looks bright for the Lancers.
“We’re going to miss one, but we’ve got this whole group back so we’re excited to see what the future has for us,” Blum said.
“They’re going to work hard when we get into the offseason here and get into the summer and hopefully we can accomplish the goal that we’ve been trying to the last five years to get out to the NAIA National Championship for the first time in program history. That’ll definitely be one of our top goals as we go into the summer.”
SOUTHWESTERN CHRISTIAN 102, YELLOWSTONE CHRISTIAN 43
In Friday’s early consolation final for seventh place, Yellowstone continued to struggle in the turnover department, and Southwestern was happy to capitalize on the way to triple digits.
The Centurions coughed the ball up 27 times, and the Lady Eagles made them with 38 points off of turnovers. Southwestern led 47-17 at halftime and recorded 26 assists — including eight by Kylee Vestal — on 37 made shots. Eliora Johnson recorded game-highs of 23 points and 25 rebounds, Amy Tully put up 22 points, and Makenzie Janz and Lakyn Johnson each put up 13 for the Eagles, who had nine players in the scoring column and made almost half their shots — 37 of 78 — while leading wire-to-wire on the way to the win.
Yellowstone got 17 points from Sharnell Thomas and 11 from Paige Gregory in the loss.
Emmanuel and Greenville play for third place at 10 a.m. Saturday, and No. 1 seed Mid-America Christian faces off against No. 2 Concordia for the NCCAA championship at 2 p.m.