Grace On a Roll, Bound for Branson

For about a year now, I’ve been dying to say it.

Ever since Grace signed Greg Miller last September…Ever since Grace landed ETSU transfer Bruce Grimm Jr. last March…Ever since injury-riddled Dave Henry got healthy in the offseason… Ever since Grace’s 10-2 start, the Bethel sweep, the four-game winning streak in January and the five-game winning streak in February, we’ve all been thinking it. And now, we can say it – finally.

The Lancers are Branson bound.

The last 17 seconds of Grace’s 57-56 upset against No. 14 Saint Francis, I believe, secured it – when Grimm did exactly what he’s done the last six games. He took control. After grabbing a long rebound, he went coast-to-coast for a layup in the final seconds to punch his team’s ticket to Branson and the defending national champions in the gut.

“Bruce told me, ‘If I get the rebound, I’m going the other way,’” said head coach Jim Kessler. “And that’s what he did. He took it to the rack.”

Of course, we won’t be certain about Grace’s future until March 2, when the conference tournaments are complete and the at-large bids are awarded according to the final poll. Nothing is ever certain.

“Right now, there is probably a 57 percent chance that we are already in,” said Aaron Minglin, a rater for the MCC and NAIA. “If we lose to Wesleyan on Saturday, then lose to our first round opponent, that would make us 21-10. And that 10th loss would probably put us on the bubble. We will probably still get in, but you just don’t know.”

But I’m going to go against my pessimistic tendencies and say it: Grace is in. When you finish second in the best conference in the nation, it’d take an uncanny string of bad luck to keep us out of the mix. In 2009, Grace lost in the first round with a 20-10 record, but still received an at-large bid because of the prestige of the MCC.

“In all probability, the win solidified our position for Branson to go as an at-large at worst,” Kessler continued. “Deservingly, we probably have four teams in our conference that should go and should be competitive at the national tournament.”

“As an oversight person of the national polls, I study the trends, and one of the things I look at is the strength of vote. There are usually some echelons. Now, the third echelon, those are your bubble teams. But we’ve consistently been in the second echelon. IWU has been up and down. Huntington has been up and down. But we are peaking.”

It’s funny, really, how circumstances can change in a matter of games. Three weeks ago, if you had told me that Grace would have a shot at the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament, I would have told you to go back to the asylum.

Grace flopped against Marian University on Jan. 29, and Grace’s Branson hopes seemed, well, possible but improbable. Oakland City, suddenly, became very real.

“That Marian game was a turning point,” Kessler said. “That was kind of a low point for us, and I felt like we were playing not to lose. From that point on, we tried to come out really hard and just focus on what we do.”

Then Grace went on a rampage. They won five straight, seven of their last eight, winning every game they needed to win – making them the hottest team in the MCC. Grimm, “the bus driver” as Kessler calls him, turned his vehicle into the Magic School Bus. He put Grace’s fate on his shoulders, and proved to the skeptics that though he struggled at the beginning of the year, he was the real deal. His last six stat lines: 27 points, six assists; 27 points, four assists; 17 points, seven assists; 11 points, eight rebounds, four assists; 29 points, 10 rebounds, six assists (Dear Moses…); 21 points, six rebounds.

Every team dreams of peaking at this time of the season, and with the help of Grimm, Grace is doing it. Granted, there is still a lot of work to do, especially now that we’ve seen the type of talent this team has. It would have been nice to win our first regular season conference title since 1993 or even win the conference tournament and find ourselves flirting with a top-five seed in Branson.

But for now, for once, maybe Lancer Nation can take a deep breath…and just enjoy it. Maybe this will help: The Lancers are Branson bound.

By Stephen Copeland

This column was published in the February 18 issue of Grace’s student newspaper, The Sounding Board.

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