A stout defensive performance and late free throws propelled Grace College’s men’s basketball team to a 54-50 upset of No. 7 Bellevue on Thursday in the opening round of the 2015 NAIA Div. II National Championships in Branson, Mo.
The Lancers (22-10) held Bellevue to 30 points below its season scoring average of 80.0 ppg. Grace’s lockdown defense was especially apparent in the second half as the Bruins (28-6) scored just 17 points, including three points over the final 6:16 of regulation.
The back-and-forth game featured nine ties and 10 lead changes, and neither team led by more than six points.
Grace opened the game with a 3-pointer from Brandon Vanderhegghen, and Logan Irwin repeated the performance a minute later. Irwin was to play a vital role offensively for Grace in the opening half, leading all players with 12 points on 5-of-7 shooting.
Bellevue closed out the first half on a 7-2 run to claim a 33-30 advantage at halftime. Both teams shot better than 43 percent from the floor, but they combined to make 3-of-19 from beyond the arc.
The Bruins started as the stronger squad to open the second half and had the largest lead of the game at 40-34 with 12:43 remaining. But Vanderhegghen singlehandedly pulled Grace back, rattling off seven points in two minutes to cut the Bruins’ lead to one possession.
From that point forward, the Lancers’ defense took care of the rest. Bellevue hit a free throw to make the score 47-45 with 6:17 on the clock. Grace’s defense then stifled the Bruins into scoring just three points over the final six minutes of play, setting the stage for a dramatic comeback.
Grace still trailed by three with under three minutes to play when Vanderhegghen was fouled and made both attempts. After a turnover from the Bruins, Irwin was fouled and hit both shots to give Grace a 51-50 lead with 1:29 left to play.
The Lancers made another defensive stop and let the clock run down on the ensuing offensive possession. Irwin missed a shot, but Niko Read came up with a big offensive board with 34.1 seconds remaining. After a timeout, Grace turned the ball over, but Bellevue spoiled a chance to go ahead with a turnover of its own.
Kyle Fillman was fouled with 11 seconds left and made 1-of-2. Caleb Featherston came up with a game-clinching play to soar for the offensive rebound on Fillman’s miss. Irwin was fouled and hit 2-of-2 from the line with less than five seconds to play, securing Grace’s upset.
Irwin had a game-high 21 points to go along with three assists and three boards. Vanderhegghen had 18 points and also led all players with nine rebounds. Featherston tallied 6 points, 6 boards and 4 steals, Erik Bowen scored four points off the bench, and Dennis Williams added 2 points, 7 boards and 2 blocks.
Although Grace shot 38 percent from the floor, the Lancers held the Bruins to an even lower 33 percent. Bellevue made just 5-of-26 (19 percent) after halftime.
The Lancers will play either No. 10 Midland or Southern Oregon in the NAIA Second Round on Friday at 2:45 p.m. (ET).
Learn more at grace.edu.