Grace junior Elijah Malone scores during the first half of Wednesday night's NAIA game against Madonna. Photos by Gary Nieter
Grace junior Elijah Malone scores during the first half of Wednesday night's NAIA game against Madonna. Photos by Gary Nieter
A night after scoring 101 points and winning by nearly 30 in the team’s first ever NAIA tournament game at home, the Grace Lancers men’s basketball team had to work a little bit harder against No. 9 seeded Madonna Wednesday night. After making it through an ugly stretch in the first half, the Lancers were able to find a way to pull off a 72-61 win at the Manahan Orthopaedic Capital Center. By winning their first two games of the tournament, Grace will advance to the Sweet 16 held in Kansas City, Mo.

The Lancer offense that dazzled a night prior was not there to start off Wednesday night’s game. After a relatively sluggish start, Moore would use his first timeout of the game less than 90 seconds into the contest with his team trailing 4-2.

The call worked to perfection, as Grace woke up immediately once returning to the court. Using their quickness in transition and aggressiveness on the boards, the Lancers were able to get in front with a 7-0 run. At the first media timeout, Grace held onto a slim two-point lead.

The next few minutes were not kind to the Lancers. Nine-seeded Madonna had come to play and had an answer to almost every big play the home team threw at them. Playing a physical game down low, the Crusaders were able to exploit gaps in the Grace defense and exploit them while building an eight-point lead in the meantime.

The offensive dry spell lasted long enough to put the Lancers into an early hole. Attempting to get out of it, Grace’s aggressiveness continued on the offensive end, leading to plenty of free throw attempts with Madonna picking up seven team fouls in the first ten minutes. Unfortunately for the home side, while Grace was able to get to the charity stripe rather effortlessly, making the foul shots became a challenge. More times than not, a trip to the free throw line resulted in one or no points.

The biggest constant for Grace throughout the first half was its decision to feed center Elijah Malone down low as much as possible. After stalling on offense for a majority of the first 20 minutes, things began to click for the Lancers. Malone was starting to create some space for himself down low, either getting an easy dunk because of it or finding sharpshooter Carter Stoltzfus outside for a three-pointer. Combining the strengths of the two players, the Lancers began to chip away at the lead.

With their team starting to get back into the game, the home crowd did so as well. A few threes from Stoltzfus got the fans buzzing before a massive block by Malone with just over two minutes left brought the arena to its feet. Feeding off of the energy, Jakob Gibbs stole the ensuing inbounds pass and took it coast-to-coast to give Grace the lead back for the first time since the opening minutes. With the floodgates now wide open, the Lancers were able to feed off of the energy enough to extend their lead to six before the halftime break.

Feeding off of the momentum gained in the final minutes of the first half, Grace came out with purpose to begin the second. Though the scoring wasn’t at the desired level, the top-seeded Lancers made up for it on the defensive end, suffocating the Crusaders at every turn. At the first media timeout of the final 20 minutes, Grace was up by seven points.

As the nine-seed had done at every opportunity up to this point, Madonna answered the surge with one of its own. Battling for every inch of space, the Crusaders muscled their way back into the contest, shrinking the deficit to two with eleven minutes left in the game.

While the Lancers would gradually begin to grow their lead once again, it didn’t come easily. Fresh off of a game-high 22 points the night before, sophomore guard Jakob Gibbs began to take the game over in the final 10 minutes. Racing up and down the court with blazing speed, Gibbs was a menace on both ends of the court, leading both teams in scoring once again with 24 points.

Gibbs’ hustle was contagious. With the game hanging in the balance, it was the Lancers that made the big time hustle plays required to come away with a win. Whether it was a steal in transition or an extra offensive rebound that led to a put-back, Grace was able to feed off of their home crowd’s intensity and push their lead to eight, their largest of the game, with five and a half minutes left.

With three minutes left, the lead would be cut to three, but that was the closest Madonna would get. The Crusaders would use as many fouls as possible to try and extend the game, but when it mattered most, the home side was able to convert at the charity stripe. With a minute left the lead was back up to 10 and there was nothing left to do but celebrate.

Along with Gibbs, Malone finished his night in double figures with 19 points to go with seven rebounds and three blocks. Stoltzfus and Frankie Davidson each added nine. The Lancers will play their Sweet 16 game next week against the winner of Freed-Hardeman and Dordt.