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Amazing Grace! Lady Crusaders finish three-peat!

Feb. 27—It was a display of style, substance and grace that few, if any, high school women's basketball teams in North Carolina had ever matched. We're not likely to see their likes again anytime soon.

There was just one chapter left to be written in the legend of Sarah Strong and her Grace Christian School teammates Saturday evening, when they took to the floor for the final time in a three-year run that had seen 90 victories to that point, including the last 40 in a row, and two NCISAA state championships, with a third in their sights.

And what a chapter it turned out to be. After opening the game with a near-perfect opening seven minutes, the Lady Crusaders cruised to an 82-33 rout of third-seeded High Point Christian Academy to win the state 3A title at North Raleigh Christian Academy.

Grace, which finished 30-0 on the season and will complete the year ranked in multiple national top 25's, beat both the 1A (Cresset) and 4A (Cannon) state champions this season. They didn't play the 2A champs, but beat both 2024 2A finalists a year ago in the semifinals and finals, when Grace was a 2A team itself.

The Lady Crusaders took the lead 22 seconds into Saturday's contest and led 20-0 after four minutes of action. It was a ridiculous 32-4 after seven minutes, and there was already no doubt as to who was going to win. Grace cruised from there, leading by 35 at halftime and by 44 after three quarters of play.

"We talked about this last night," said Grace head coach Chad Revelle. "High Point is a good ball team, they had already seen us once, and I told them 'Everybody wants to knock off Grace. You do not want to take them for granted. Let's go out there and do what we're supposed to be, and be an elite caliber team like we've been all year long.'

"I told them to finish this journey like we began it, and commit to playing stingy, aggressive defense, and they did."

Grace did not play High Point Christian (22-4) during the regular season, but had scrimmaged them back in November and had some idea what to expect. The Cougars are led by guard Kylie Torrence, a junior who has already signed with Boston College, and have several other talented players besides. Grace decided the best course of action was to try to contain Torrence, who averages 20 points and nine rebounds per game, and shut down everyone else.

"We told them to stay with her unless she went to the bench to take a water break," said Revelle of Torrence. "We knew she had an elite pull-up game, but we have five, six, seven girls who can all come in and play. High Point Christian is a good team, but if you stay after her, then everyone else (would) have to beat us."

This worked fantastically well. Torrence did lead her team with 18 points, but no one else on the Cougars could really get started. Meanwhile, everything the Lady Crusaders tried was working. Halisi Whitley hit three 3-pointers in the first quarter, Isa Roman had two, and Icyss Storm, who dominated inside with High Point worried about Strong, had one along with three inside baskets in the opening 32-4 run.

The Cougars finally got untracked long enough to score seven unanswered, but then Strong decided to take over and scored 12 points in the second quarter. Toni Hughes continued her late-season comeback from injury by showing her versatility, first scoring inside and then hitting a 3-pointer from the corner. Strong put the exclamation point on the first half after a basket by High Point, racing from end to end for a layup one second before the buzzer and a 52-17 halftime lead.

Grace forced the running block with 4:42 remaining in the third, when Reagan Lindholm saved a too strong bass from Strong and then tossed it behind her for a reverse layup and a 62-21 lead. The third quarter ended with the score at 71-27.

The lead neared 50 points in the closing minutes, and whether Grace got there or not depends on whose count is official. A Strong putback of a missed free throw late in the game should have given the Lady Crusaders 83 points, but it was erroneously scored by the official scorer for a reported final score of 82-33. Grace was reporting a final of 83-33 as of press time on Monday, but the NCISAA had not corrected it on its official tally.

Whatever score is finally recorded for posterity, the Sarah Strong era ended at Grace Christian with a 91-4 record, ending in a 41-game winning streak. Grace won 80 games by double-digit margins, won the NCISAA 1A, 2A and then 3A titles in succession, and will end the 2023-24 season as a nationally ranked team.

"I think Sarah could potentially become the greatest women's basketball player ever, because she is such a complete player," said Revelle. "She's a great passer, doesn't care if she scores 40, 30, two, 10. She enjoys the game and enjoys the relationships with her teammates, and that makes her incredible."

Strong led 30-0 Grace with a fitting 30 points in her last high school game. Whitley and Storm added 16 each, Roman nine, Hughes seven, Serenity McNair three and Lindholm two. McNair and Strong are the only seniors on the team. While Grace will not be the same powerhouse without Strong, it will be a contender for a fourth consecutive title next season.