WINONA LAKE — The Lancers would have loved to win their coach a championship in his final tournament, but it’s just not to be.
Coach Jim Kessler says he didn’t treat Wednesday’s NCCAA Championships opener any differently than any other game in his 42 years at Grace, but it is possible his players felt differently about it. The hosts did get off to a slow start opposite Bluefield, falling behind early on the way to an eventual 77-74 loss at Manahan Orthopaedic Capital Center.
“I didn’t coach this game any different than I ever do. On the board it said we want to be 1-0. Yeah, there’s emotion, but once the game is underway I don’t think about that. We’re just trying to play the best we can. That’s what we do every game out,” explained Kessler.
“The guys, I think there was some emotion on their part. Maybe they were a little too high early because I didn’t think we shot quite as smooth, but we didn’t try to hype them, trust me.”
A five-minute scoring drought and 11 straight points by Bluefield put the Lancers down 20-10 in the first half before the home team finally got its offense rolling. Grace answered back with a 17-0 run featuring a pair of triples from Jaret Sons to get out front at 29-24 at the 5:17 mark of the first half, but the Rams finished off the half with a 6-1 spurt to retake a tentative, 33-32 advantage at the intermission.
Another Bluefield run — this one for 11 straight points — put Grace behind by double digits again at 47-34 early in the second half, and the Rams never relinquished the lead again. The Lancers whittled that deficit down to as little as a single point following Charlie Warner’s one-and-one with just 14 seconds left to play, but Jermiah Jenkins answered with a pair of free throws on the opposite end. Trailing by three, the Lancers took their last timeout and got set for one final play, but Haden Deaton’s attempt from the wing caromed off the backboard as time expired and that 77-74 margin wound up the final.
“They went zone, and we didn’t adjust early on against the zone. We did eventually come back, and they got out of it. We’re generally a really good zone team because we shoot the ball really well, but we weren’t as together as we needed to be against the zone,” explained Kessler.
“We weren’t bad. We just weren’t as good as they were. We just got ourselves in too big of a hole.”
Deaton led his team with a game-high 22 points and six rebounds, Warner scored 19 points, and Martin Schiele gave his team a big lift off the bench with 12 points in more than 19 minutes of floor time. As a team, the lancers went 24-of-63 (38.1 percent) from the floor, not enough to keep up with the Rams on a hot shooting night.
“Haden, he’s solid. He’s been that way all year for us. Really, he really shoots better if we get inside. Not that he was bad,” said Kessler. “The same with Charlie, he struggled a little bit early, but both of those guys are competitors. They wanted to play. I thought Marty Schiele came off the bench and had a really nice game for us, filled in some pieces.”
Jorge Concepcion paced Bluefield (19-13) with 20 points, while Niquan Cousons was close behind with 19 points to go with seven rebounds, Jenkins put up 13 points with three assists, and Ty’quon Reid scored 10 for the Rams. Bluefield knocked down more than 48 percent of its shots from the field at MOCC, including 7-of-18 (38.9 percent) of its three-point attempts holding off Grace in the second half.
The Lancers (16-16) play Nebraska Christian in a 10:15 a.m. consolation bracket game Thursday morning.
“It’s what it is. It’s a game. We played as hard as we can, and we’ll do the same thing tomorrow, and the same thing when we play Friday,” Kessler said.