Playing against the Grace College Lancers presents a challenge for many teams in the Crossroads League.
While they lack in size, their speed and quickness, particularly on defense, is a catalyst for a myriad of issues in the halfcourt.
Furthermore, former Marion Giant and Grace all-time leading scorer Vironnica Drake is a tremendous talent, an elite scorer who has the ability to take over games with her offensive prowess.
But behind another stout defensive effort, a career night for Anne Secrest, and a milestone performance for Dayton Groninger, the No. 17 IWU Wildcats stayed red hot on Wednesday evening, defeating the Lancers 79-69 in their final regular season home game at Luckey Arena.
“It was a really good team win,” Secrest said. “We just took our game plan and executed it.”
With the win, the Wildcats, who have now won five straight games, solidified their hold on fourth place in the Crossroads League.
Secrest, fully healed from the ACL tear she suffered a season ago, has emerged in recent weeks, and against the Lancers, she turned in one of her finest performances in a Wildcat uniform. She finished the contest with 28 points, all coming in the paint, on 13-of-18 shooting, while also leading the team with nine rebounds.
“She really couldn’t be stopped, and the best part was that she was aggressive,” IWU Head Coach Ethan Whaley said. “She was calling for the basketball. I’m really proud of her. She’s been in a bit of a funk, and she has really worked her way out of it. I’m really proud of Anne.”
IWU’s defense, their strength all season, was likewise excellent for the majority of Wednesday’s contest, holding an efficient Grace offense to just 34.5 percent (20-of-58) from the field and 27.6 percent (eight-of-29) from the perimeter.
“We just played team defense,” Secrest said. “We pride ourselves on defense. We come in here, and we grind, and we work on it every day. Our coaches expect perfection when we are playing on defense. I think we gave it our best shot [tonight.]”
IWU got off to a hot start, scoring the first nine points of the basketball game and keeping Grace scoreless over the first 3:53 of the contest. Secrest found her groove early, scoring six of those points and using her size to her advantage against the Lancers’ smaller lineup.
However, Grace made some adjustments to their defense, switching to a full-court press to help speed up the Wildcats.
The strategy worked, as the Lancers’ aggressive pressure forced seven Wildcat turnovers and helped cut the Wildcat lead down to one.
“They fly all over the place,” Whaley said. “I know there is a pattern to what they are doing, but sometimes, [they ran] a 2-2-1, and sometimes, it was a run and jump. It throws off your rhythm.”
Despite all of their mistakes, the Wildcats, behind a late basket from Carly Lange, took a 17-14 lead after the first 10 minutes – and carried that momentum throughout the rest of the first half.
“I just told them [between quarters] that, ‘You’ve got to have poise. You have to take care of the basketball, ball fake, and just do the fundamentals that we talk about every day,’ Whaley said. “Once we settled in, we did a really good job.”
The Wildcats opened the quarter on a 13-0 run, while the defense completely stifled the Grace offense, holding the Lancers without a point until the 5:30 mark of the period.
After just shooting four-of-13 in the first 10 minutes, Grace opened the second frame shooting zero-of-seven.
“We preach discomfort, and Coach [Whaley] always teaches us about getting up in their business,” Groninger said. “We know that defense always leads to offense, so we wanted to disrupt them as much as we could. And we did that.”
While Grace was finally able to get on the scoreboard, the Wildcats’ defense continued to operate effectively, holding the Lancers to just 13 points in the quarter. Conversely, IWU scored 26, leading by many as 17 points before taking a 16-point, 43-27 advantage into halftime.
The Lancers, however, quickly proved they would not go down without a fight.
The Wildcats have had third quarter woes all season long, and that trend continued on Wednesday. From the start of the frame until the 2:05 mark, the Lancers outscored the Wildcats 16-4, trimming their 16-point deficit down to just four points.
When the Wildcats were not giving the ball away – which they did seven times in the third – they put the Lancers at the free throw line, and Grace took advantage, knocking down all nine of their shots from the charity stripe to get themselves back in the game.
“Their pressure got to us a little bit – we had a couple of turnovers,” Secrest said. “And then, we bailed them out a couple of times and sent them to the free-throw line.”
But while the Lancers moved to within striking distance, the Wildcats never allowed them to take the lead.
After a pair of free throws cut the Wildcats’ lead to two possessions, Lange responded with two free throws of her own, pushing the lead back to six.
The Lancers again hit two free throws with 18.7 ticks remaining, but the Wildcats, needing another big-time basket, got one from shooting guard Maddie Davis. With less than a second remaining, the sophomore southpaw found twine from the corner, giving the Wildcats a 54-47 with a quarter to go.
Davis’ three helped the Wildcats rediscover their rhythm, and from that precise moment, IWU remained unthreatened.
“We talk a lot about having poise, and we really wanted to have poise against their pressure,” Secrest said. “I think we came out and did that, and we just got it down the floor. Once we got past halfcourt and executed what we wanted to do…that was what the difference was.”
“We just had to keep playing the way we know how to play and keep playing as a team,” Groninger added. “Basketball is a game of runs, so we just had to take that punch and punch them right back.”
IWU opened the stanza with a 9-0 surge, giving them a double-digit advantage they would not relinquish. The offense continued to pound the ball into the paint, and Secrest continued to deliver, scoring 10 of her 28 points in the final 10 minutes.
“We knew coming in that we would have a size advantage,” Secrest said. “We put an emphasis on that. We had 46 paint points. We just really emphasized pounding the ball in the paint, getting layups, and scoring.”
The Wildcats owned the post all evening, outscoring the Lancers by a margin of 46-20.
“When we play well, that’s typically [what we see] on the stat sheet – we score a lot more in the paint than the other team,” Whaley said. “When Anne plays that way, when Carly plays that way, we put ourselves in a really good spot.”
After Secrest, Groninger was the Wildcats’ second-leading scorer with 19 points, becoming the 30th Wildcat to reach the 1,000 point plateau.
IWU’s junior forward is in the midst of her best season as a Wildcat. After scoring 229 points as a freshman and 342 as a sophomore, Groninger, as of Wednesday, is up to 429 this season.
The Wildcats will play their final game of the regular season this coming Saturday, traveling across Grant County to conclude their season series with arch-rival Taylor.
“You can throw out records, you can throw out rankings, [and] you can almost throw out schemes – it’s going to be about who is the tougher team,” Whaley said. “Taylor is so good. They are so tough. They can make shots. They can drive it. And then, defensively, they can stagnate you. We have to come ready to play, and you know it’s going to be a battle on Saturday.”