If you travel to Grace Bible College in Grand Rapids and walk into their basketball facility, you will see a large number of banners hanging down from the rafters. National championships (five since 2006), conference championships, national championship appearances, all kinds of honours are commemorated by those banners that hang from the rafters in the Aldrich Athletic Center. Here at Great Lakes, on the other hand, we have only one banner, and it denotes the school’s membership in the National Christian College Athletics Association. We have no honours, we hold no titles.
Note the difference. It is that difference sets the stage for this story.
Great Lakes and Grace have carried on this ‘rivalry’ for as long as the teams have been in the Midwest Region of the NCCAA. I place ‘rivalry’ in quotation marks because the balance of power has, for as long as anyone can remember, been tipped (to say the least) in the favour of the Grand Rapids team. None of the current GLCC players had ever been a part of a squad that had defeated Grace. In fact, no one is quite sure when or if it ever happened.
After an up-and-down week that epitomised their up-and-down season, a week that saw them lose to Mid-Michigan Community College (whom they had defeated at home a month before), defeat a lacklustre Dayspring squad, and get pounded by Silver Lake on Sunday, the Lakes needed a win in the worst way on Tuesday night against the Grace Tigers. Grace, on the other hand, were living up to standard form, ranked third in Division II of the NCCAA and undefeated in conference play coming into the game.
The game began with Garrett Abner burying a deep three to put the Lakes on top on their first possession. He scored the first eight points of the game, and the Lakes raced out to a 22-9 lead in the first six minutes. As the reserves came in, the lead continued to build. The Lakes scored eleven unanswered points and lead 33-9 with 12:32 left on the clock in the first half, the crowd in full throat.
It was at this point that the narrative that has plagued the team for the entire season began to rear its ugly head once more: despite getting off to a good start, the game began to slip away from the Lakes. Slowly, the Tigers chipped away at the lead. Grace outscored Great Lakes 23-9 down the stretch, until halftime saw the Lakes holding on to a greatly reduced 49-41 margin.
The mood at the break was generally positive, but one couldn’t help thinking about Sunday’s clash with Silver Lake, which saw much of the same storyline: the Lakes jumped out to a quick ten-point lead, bolstered by a scoring run from Abner, only to not only squander away the advantage, but to lose in a resounding 100-67 blowout.
The early goings of the second half seemed to realise those fears as Grace scored the first ten points of the half and took a 51-49 lead.
It was at that point that many would have expected Great Lakes to complete the narrative of the season; to let the game get away from them and be soundly beaten once again, to be dealt a flurry of punches and collapse in defeat. In short, to roll over and die.
But they didn’t.
It is when a team is struggling the most that they look for a leader, someone who will defy adversity and win when the odds are against him. Troy Aubrey shouldn’t have even been playing in this game. He had been left out of the starting line-up due to a painful hip flexor injury, one that may require offseason surgery. He had tried to get a medical redshirt as the semester began, but he had played one too many games to be eligible for that redshirt. He wasn’t even wearing his familiar number 10, he had donned 25 for this game. He didn’t play very many minutes, and his stat line wasn’t filled with gaudy numbers, but he made the key plays that saved the game for Great Lakes.
He checked into the game just before Grace took the lead. On his first possession in the game, he drove to the hoop and finished the layup to tie the game. After a defensive stop, the Lakes launched the fast break and Aubrey scored another layup to give the Lakes the lead. Those two plays not only gave Great Lakes the lead, but it established the tone for the rest of the game: Great Lakes would not die tonight.
The two teams fought a closely-contested battle for the lead for the majority of the half. Grace took the lead back, 61-58, with a three with 10:16 left in the game, only to see Abner level the score with a deep three-ball of his own a moment later. Grace immediately responded with a pair of threes, giving them a six-point lead, their largest of the contest. Great Lakes, however, refused to let this one get away. With 4:55 to go, Jimbo Harvey laid one in to cut the deficit to 73-72. A moment later Abner hit yet another three from way downtown, his fifth of the game, to tie the game at 75 with under three minutes to play.
Perri Vaden made a free throw to give GLCC the 76-75 lead with 2:31 left. He missed the second, but the Lakes grabbed the rebound. Another Grace foul gave Great Lakes a new shot clock and Harvey finished a basket underneath to increase the lead to three with a minute and a half to play. Grace responded with a layup to cut the lead back down to one, but the Lakes responded right back as Vaden scored again, two of his thirteen on the night, to put them up 80-77 with 53.8 seconds on the clock. Another defensive steal, one of eleven in the game for the Lakes, and a fast break led to another Aubrey layup and the Lakes led by five with 40 seconds to go.
Grace weren’t about to go down without a fight, they scored a basket and got the foul to go with it on the other end. The ensuing free throw was good and the Tigers trailed by only a pair, 82-80, with 25 seconds to play. The next possession for the Lakes saw the Tigers attempt to foul to stop the clock.
But they couldn’t do it.
The five men on the floor for Great Lakes passed the ball around the Grace defenders and the Tigers couldn’t do a thing about it. For nineteen seconds the Lakes just kept playing the ball all over the court. The student section, who had been plenty loud from the outset, reached their greatest level of excitement yet as the Lakes played their game of monkey-in-the-middle around the Grace defence. Finally, with 6.2 seconds left, one of them managed to grab Abner and get a foul called, only to have it ruled as an intentional foul, which not only gave Abner two free throws, but allowed the Lakes to retain possession. Abner buried the two free throws to give GLCC an 84-80 lead, and passed the ball in to Harvey on the in-bounds play. Harvey scored a quick layup in the final seconds, and it was all over.
The buzzer sounded, the crowd erupted, and players and students met on the floor of the Doty Center in a moment that none of us will soon forget. Pure joy. Mike Vickers, who had never beaten Grace in his four-year career and had only this last opportunity to beat them,
was in tears. The giant had fallen. Great Lakes 86, Grace 80.
“It was all of us,” Vickers said after the game, “The crowd, the whole school beat Grace. It wasn’t just us on the court, it was everybody that helped us beat Grace. We did it, man! I’ve lost to Grace seven straight times and now I got a chance to beat them. We did it, man… I’m going to tell my children about this.”
Harvey grabbed a double-double with 15 points and a team-high 10 rebounds. “It feels great!” he said after the game, “Oh my gosh, it feels great! I told coach at the beginning of the game, man, I was like ‘look, this is our game’. This year is our year. Until that banner go up on that wall, I’m not leaving here.”
Aubrey, who finished with nine key points off the bench, said “It means a lot to me, but I’m even more happy for my teammates and our coaching staff to get a big win like this. They’ve been wanting to beat Grace for years… so I’m just happy, happy for the program, happy for the school, and I’m just happy to be a part of this day.”
Abner, who led the team with nineteen points, said “I think it gives us nothing but confidence. You know, we’ve beaten two teams, two top teams in our region, Northland and now Grace. I think that we can come here, and know we can win it (the conference tournament), especially if it’s at home, we’ve got a chance.”
Head coach John Piercefield was very pleased after the game. “Guys played great, great team effort,” he said, “That game could have gone any which way… if they’d have made one more, and we’d have made one less it’d be a whole different story. It’s not easy to beat any good team; this is great team, we just played very well today.”
Perri Vaden scored thirteen points off the bench and led the Lakes with six assists, four steals, and two blocks. David Parks got the start and scored ten first-half points to help get the Lakes rolling. The Lakes forced 18 turnovers, giving away only seven.
The highlights of this game will never be aired on national television. Few outside of the attendees will ever be aware that this game took place. The years will pass, and the names of the players and their exploits that night may only be immortalised by some photographs and a box score filed away somewhere.
But if you ever get the chance to go to the Aldrich Athletic Center and observe those banners, take in the sight. Watch them hanging in silence. See the trophy cases laden with hardware from championships and other achievements. See it all and recognise their successes, but remember:
For one night, a cold and frosty night in January, in one glorious shining moment that many will overlook but none of us will ever forget…