WINONA LAKE – In the tunnel under the Manahan Orthopaedic Captial Center, a hauntingly quiet hallway outside the Grace women’s lockerroom suddenly had some noise.
“How could dad let them lose?” asked five-year-old Nash Davis to his brother, Cooper, raising his hands in the air after leaving dad’s lockerroom in the aftermath of a 91-76 championship semi-final loss. Nash again asked the question walking away from the doors as Dan Davis, head coach of the Grace College women’s team, tried to figure out what to say to his players behind those doors.
Nash was among many who felt like Grace was about to embark on history Thursday night in the NCCAA Women’s Basketball Championship semis, putting No. 1 seed Mid-America Christian on notice. Grace, which has never advanced to the NCCAA championship game and has only played in the winner’s bracket once in program history, had the defending champs on the ropes. But like a good prize fighter, MAC continued to fight back and finally threw a series of knockout blows.
Alexis Shannon and Shaylan Coleman were phenomenal for the Evangels. Shannon proved to be too much on the interior, scoring just 10 points in the first half, but had 17 alone in the third quarter and did a lot of the little things to keep possessions alive. At one point in the third quarter, Shannon scored 10 straight points for her team as it built a 14-point lead and quieted what was a very rowdy home contingent as it assembled in the first half.
Shannon would end up with 32 points and 10 rebounds, and was 8-8 from the free throw line to boot.
Coleman was one of the players coach Davis was worried about before the game even began. And even two hours after the game ended, was still sitting in his office talking about Coleman’s impact on the game. A factor all 94 feet of the court, Coleman hit some huge shots, but did so by driving right through the teeth of the Grace defense.
After Brooke Sugg hit a huge three to move Grace within four points at 71-67 in the fourth quarter, Coleman went right down the court and put two back in for MAC. Vironnica Drake then found the bottom of the cup to get it back to four, but Coleman found Nevada Denton in the corner for a three, then after Grace came up empty on its next possession, Coleman drove right to the bucket for two. At 78-69, it was all but curtains.
“They played an exceptional game, and we raised the bar for that to happen,” stated an emotional Davis, who had just finished addressing his devastated roster in a solemn lockerroom. “That’s a really, really good ball club. That’s about as good as a club as we’ve played this year. And they have two players who are as good together as we have played this year. Bar none. And truth is, I don’t know if we’ve faced a team that has two players like that. And you have to give credit to that. Big time players step up and make big time plays. And, man, Coleman stepped up and made some big plays.”
Grace got the game within four points on three occasions in the second half after MAC took a five point lead into the break, 42-37, but immediately got three-pointers from Coleman, who scored 27 points, and Jessica Fairley, who chipped in 10 points, to open the second half. Coleman added eight assists and seven rebounds to her total.
Grace got a heroic effort from Kyannah Stull, who scored a team-high 24 points. Stull was 5-10 from three-point range and had a couple treys that had Grace’s faithful feeling like it could pull off the shocker. Stull’s three to open the fourth quarter had Grace down four, and even after Coleman’s theatrics in the fourth, Stull drilled a three with 4:44 to go to cut the lead to 81-76 and had Grace’s bench going nuts. But that was the closest the Lancers would get the rest of the way, MAC ending the game on a 10-0 run.
Drake finished her night with 17 points, but didn’t command the game as she has in game’s past. Sugg, who fell ill Wednesday night and spent most of Thursday morning and afternoon feeling violently ill, would gut out 16 points on 6-10 shooting. Sugg, however, never was able to get into rhythm as her sea legs just weren’t there and had to be subbed in and out frequently as the pace of the game quickened.
“What’s so great about sports is you get to step into the moment and make plays,” Davis said. “We had some opportunities, and Ky hit some huge shots. I have been saying it over and over, she has been our best player for the past nine or 10 games. And man, she was hitting tonight. They just hit a few more shots tonight than we did.”
Mid-America Christian will try to defend its championship Saturday at 5 p.m. against Brewton-Parker, which walloped Roberts Wesleyan, 81-49, in the other national semi-final. Naomi Wilds led Brewton with 18 points and 11 rebounds in a game that saw 11 from Brewton score. Latoya King added 17 points. Roberts Wesleyan had Emily Miller score 15 points and Taryn Wilson chip in 12 points.
Davis and his Lancers still have something to play for, trying to finish third in the NCCAA for only the second time ever in program history, the other time in 2012. Grace and Roberts play at noon Saturday.
“These kids won’t have to surprise me anymore, because Saturday these girls are going to put on a show,” Davis said with confidence. “My three seniors, they don’t want to go out on a loss. We can’t win the whole thing, doggone it, but they have plenty of fight. That’s a proud lockerroom, and those kids want to end this thing with a win.”