Too tough inside
Losing in a state championship game is always tough to take. At best it's bittersweet, especially given a little time.
Joel Murr expects his Grace Christian girls' basketball team to be ready to take the floor again on Wednesday and, win or lose against defending state champion Trinity Christian in the NCISAA 1A title game Saturday morning, the Lady Crusaders had another tournament and another fun road trip on their schedule.
Trinity Christian (20-5) won its second straight state championship, outplaying Grace Christian (30-4) inside to hold off a Crusader comeback try and win, 63-59.
After being the favorite throughout the regular season, and especially in going undefeated through the Carolina Christian Conference season and tournament, the Lady Crusaders entered the morning's final with practically no time to prepare after winning Friday evening's semifinal and with a different attitude.
"Today, we didn't feel we had the pressure on us, for once," said head coach Joel Murr.
"The girls really came out and played hard. The game could've gone either way there at the end, but the ball bounced (Trinity Christian's) way. I give them a lot of credit and I'm really proud of my girls," Murr said.
For the morning, Trinity Christian won the rebounding column 55-28. Repeatedly getting third, fourth and even fifth shots from inside the paint per possession, that advantage for the Lady Crusaders from Fayetteville prevailed even once Sanford's Lady Crusaders rallied from a 13-point deficit early in the third quarter to take a brief 50-48 lead early in the fourth quarter.
Post player Corinithia Lindsay scored the first four Trinity hoops of the game, leading her side to an 8-3 lead. Trinity Christian led 21-11 through one period.
Anna Murr's shooting, with two three-pointers, and driving in transition, for two three-point plays, kept the Lady Crusaders in the game until she got some help.
Grace's defense, mixing some trapping defense with sagging man-to-man, slowed Trinity Christian some, although nothing Grace did could keep Trinity off the boards.
Brooke Strickland turned two turnovers into two lay-ups cutting Trinity's lead to 29-22. A three-point play by Strickland driving to the hoop made it 29-25.
Trinity Christian led 34-25 at halftime, then 38-25 0:50 into the second half after forward Chrishelle Smith scored two hoops in the paint.
"This is what I told (our team) before the game, we're going to dictate the tempo of the game, and we might get down at the beginning, but I didn't think their big girls could keep up that tempo," Murr said.
Grace outran and outshot Trinity Christian to get back in the game but couldn't keep the rally going down the stretch.
Anna Murr made two free throws and a basket off a Trinity Christian technical foul to make Trinity's lead 38-29.
Going off the dribble to the hoop kept paying off for Murr and Strickland, which opened up space around the arc again. Strickland hit a spot-up triple to make it 46-45 Trinity with 1:40 left in the third, then drained a three in the closing seconds of the quarter for a tie game, 48-48.
Alexis Ross made her first hoop of the game, a 15-foot jumper, for a 50-48 Grace lead with 7:38 left in the game.
Trinity Christian returned to its strength, its strength inside, for an 8-0 run to answer Grace's first lead since the first couple minutes of the game.
Grace, taking advantage of two missed one-and-one chances for Trinity, had two shots to cut or erase a 62-59 Trinity lead in the last minute.
DeAira Smith blocked an Anna Murr three-pointer and Trinity got the loose ball to hold Grace once. Ross missed a tough baseline shot off the dribble and Trinity got the ball back, then two free throws by Janae Dupree with 0:18 left.
Lindsay finished with 20 points and 14 rebounds for Trinity Christian. Dupree scored 14 points and Chrishelle Smith had 13 points and 15 rebounds.
DeAira Smith had 12 points, including two critical baskets keeping Grace at bay in the final few minutes, along with 15 rebounds and seven assists. She also keyed Trinity's defensive effort.
Smith guarded Ross, Grace's freshman point guard, in the first half and Ross didn't score in the half. She switched to defend Anna Murr. Murr still scored 13 points in the second half and Ross scored seven points in the fourth quarter.
Murr finished with 27 points, including three three-pointers, five assists, five rebounds and three steals. Strickland had 23 points and eight rebounds. Ross added five rebounds and five assists. Eighth-grader Madison Bolen, battling inside, had two points and six rebounds.
"We're disappointed in that we didn't reach a goal we had set," coach Murr said, "but we get to go on to the national tournament next week, so our season doesn't end here."
Grace Christian will travel to Dayton, Tenn. for the National Association of Christian Athletes National Tournament with the tourney starting Wednesday. The Lady Crusaders are three-time NACA national champs with the last title being in 2011.