Grace Christian School doesn’t have a wrestling team. But its men’s basketball team may have thought they’d stumbled into a dual meet on Thursday night.

In a game filled with rough play and lots of fouls, many of which were not called, New Life Christian of Fayetteville slipped past the Crusaders 69-65 in a battle of the state’s fourth-ranked teams from the Carolinas Athletic Association for Schools of Choice, and the NCISAA 1A ranks.

Grace (19-3) trailed for much of the final three quarters before briefly regaining the lead midway through the final period and holding it until 1:45 remaining. New Life had a three-point lead and possession before Jesse Mitchell stole the ball and went in for a layup to make it 66-65 in favor of the visitors with 14.5 seconds remaining.

After the Monarchs’ Malachi Travis made one of two free throws with 13.2 seconds to play, Grace pushed the ball up the floor and Mitchell attempted a potential game-winning 3-pointer, only to get hacked in the process with no foul called on the play. New Life recovered the free ball and scored at the other end to lock up the victory.

Mitchell had given the Crusaders a 61-60 lead with 3:52 remaining on a three off the right baseline, putting Grace in front for the first time since the opening period. A minute later, he rebounded a missed free throw and hit a jumper in the lane to put the home team up by three, but the Monarchs (14-7) scored on their next three possessions to lead 66-63 with the clock under a minute. They were unable to get another score and Mitchell’s steal re-opened the door for the Crusaders.

Grace knew coming in that this game would be very different from the team’s most recent outings, which included an injury-depleted Lee Christian squad and then three straight homeschool teams. The teams had played on Nov. 29 in Fayetteville, and the Crusaders had held off a late rally to win 70-68. Since then, the Monarchs’ losses had been to other highly-ranked private schools and to public school powers Seventy-First and New Hanover.

On Thursday, Grace scored the first six points of the game, but no one expected a cakewalk and it wasn’t one. Before long, the teams were trading blows, and the first quarter ended with the visitors ahead 17-16.

New Life played an outstanding second quarter, highlighted by a play where the Monarchs executed an alley-oop dunk directly off an inbounds pass for a 23-20 lead early in the period. The Crusaders were unable to catch back up for the remainder of the first half, which saw New Life holding a 36-29 lead when the teams went to intermission.

After the Monarchs held a nine-point lead briefly in in the third, Mitchell and Ma’kyi Butler both went off for Grace and got the Crusaders back into it. With 2:36 left in the quarter, Rarquan Simmons drained a 3-pointer to cap off an 11-4 run and tie the game at 45. The game would go on to be tied at 47, 49, and 52 before the visitors took a 54-52 lead by quarter’s end.

Two more ties would follow in the final quarter before the teams swapped the lead for the final times in the closing minutes.

The Crusaders felt like they were fouled much more than what was being called, but also hurt themselves with shaky free-throw shooting when fouls were called, going 11-23 at the line.

Mitchell led Grace with 23 points. Butler added 14, Derius Hodges nine, Simmons eight and Landon Wester six. For the Monarchs, Travis led the way with 16 points, followed by Darian Young with 12, Kaleb James with 10, and Jaheim Grant and Javian Grant with eight each.

Grace traveled to Crossroads Christian on Friday night for their second attempt at earning a 20th victory this season. Results were not available at press time.

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