Graceland made tremendous strides in the 2011-12 season, including posting a winning season and hitting the 20-win plateau in decades. Also, the Feb. 29 victory over Avila University was the Jackets' first HAAC tournament win since the 2004-05 campaign. In only his fifth year at the helm, head coach Jeffrey Hamilton has chartered a new course for the men's basketball program.
A sluggish start by the Yellowjackets propelled the Pioneers to an early 11-4 lead as MNU forced four turnovers inside the opening five minutes. However, Garrett Grundman hit a pair of three-pointers sandwiched around two jumpers by Brad Burgus for a 10-2 run and a brief one-point lead for the visitors.
"We didn't quite have the tenacity to start the game tonight like against Avila," admitted Hamilton. "MidAmerica came out with a strong game plan. They were denying the wings and pressuring the ball. We wanted to come into this game and run our offense, so we had to make adjustments.
"Really, it was our defensive effort I was proud of tonight. We gave everything we had, every possession; we just came up short."
The advantage would be the only one of the game for Graceland as MNU forced 10 turnovers in the first half and limited the Jackets to 8-of-30 (.267 percent) shooting in the first half. The lead swelled to as much as 10 points late in the first half before the host squad took a 34-26 lead into intermission.
Graceland came out of the intermission the aggressor and trimmed the deficit down to two less than four minutes in after a triple by Burgus. MNU was able to claim another 10-point cushion with 7:20 to go on a Rustin Dowd three-pointer, but Graceland continued to stay within striking distance as Nick Mikle had 17 of his game-high 21 points after the break.
Mikle knocked down the last two of his four 3-pointers to twice cut the deficit to four in the final two minutes, the last coming with 57.5 seconds remaining. However, the Pioneers' Nick Syrie knocked down all six of his free throws down the stretch while Dowd added two more to hold on for the victory.
Mikle and Grundman combined to give the Yellowjackets 33 points off the bench. However, they were without All-HAAC guard Chris Henderson for most of the game, as he sustained an ankle injury on Wednesday against Avila and did not play in the second half after logging 11 minutes in the opening stanza. Burgus tallied 15 points and Alex Roth tallied 12 points and nine rebounds. Jamal Lawson had a game-high 16 rebounds while Trae Patton dished out eight assists.
The HAAC contributed to this article