Branson Bound? Still Work to Do

Honestly, it’s refreshing to merely be talking about Branson. After the roller coaster ride that transpired over Christmas break, I thought the Grace men’s basketball team was done for.

Following Grace’s stellar 10-2 start to the season, the Lancers dropped four in a row over break. That made them 10-6 overall and 1-2 in the MCC, not NAIA national tournament caliber.

And of course, embarking on the heart of their conference season, the Lancers had to face nightmare Goshen College on Jan. 6, a team that swept Grace two years in a row and embarrassed them on Sports Center’s “Top-10 Plays” last season.

If Grace would had lost to Goshen on Jan. 6, I believe their Branson hopes would have died. That would have put Grace on a wretched five-game losing skid and 1-3 in the MCC. Teams built for the NAIA’s don’t do that.

And they didn’t. It was ugly, but Grace pulled off a 73-66 win against the Maple Leafs, snapping their four-game losing streak against Goshen.

Then they rocked Taylor 70-42 on Jan. 8. Then they beat Spring Arbor 69-60 on Jan. 11 after falling to the Cougars three times last season. And then they capped off their four-game winning streak with a season-changing 85-80 victory against then-No. 5 Saint Francis, their first victory against a top-10 team. Just like that, the Lancers turned their season around — or at least got it back on track.

They fell to now No. 5 Indiana Wesleyan on Jan. 18, an acceptable loss (if such a term exists), which left them 6-3 midway into MCC play and flirting with second place – pretty solid for a team that could have booked their hotel in Oakland City, Ind., three weeks before.

It looked like Grace was going to continue tearing through the conference season after securing their sweep against Bethel on Jan.25, a beautiful 87-82 victory anchored by Duke Johnson. But then came Marian University on Jan. 29.

In what I would consider a must-win, especially since it was at home, the Lancers folded against Marian, 75-63, making the remainder of their conference season, well, interesting – especially if they have their eyes set on Branson, which they should. I’ll say it now. With this much talent, anything less than Missouri in March is going to be a bust.

According to Aaron Minglin, a rater for the MCC and NAIA, the Lancers 1) Need 20-21 wins, 2) Need to finish at least 4-2 in their last six games and 3) Need to win a game or two in the conference tournament in order to secure an at-large bid. Of course, Grace could always earn an automatic bid by winning the regular season or conference championship, but those are long shots.

Finishing 5-1 or 6-0 in the conference also seems improbable because of their difficult road games, not to mention finishing their campaign with games against Saint Francis and IWU. Plus, in the MCC, you are going to lose games. Marian swept us, for gosh sakes.

It’s certainly not going to be easy, and the Lancers have their work cut out for them. But at the same time, who would have thought we would even be having this conversation a month ago?

And so it begins…let the Branson drama unfold.

By Stephen Copeland

This story was published in the Feb. 4 issue of Grace’s student newspaper, The Sounding Board, when the Lancers still had six games remaining in the season.

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