Lady Crusaders finish perfect '23 slate

Jan. 2—If anyone was going to defeat Grace Christian's Lady Crusaders before the new year, if at all, it was going to happen Saturday afternoon in the championship game of the Frances Pulley Bracket of the John Wall Holiday Invitational.

A day after routing South Mecklenburg to reach the finals, Grace found itself facing another out-of-state powerhouse in Rutgers Prep, one of the top teams in the state of New Jersey. The school, which is closely connected to Big Ten women's basketball power Rutgers University, had lost only to Thomas Dale, the top-ranked team in Virginia, in five games before taking on the Lady Crusaders. This game took place Thursday in a preliminary game of the Invitational before Prep routed Terry Sanford on Friday.

The game pitted two of the top uncommitted class of 2024 recruits, headed by Grace's Sarah Strong, ranked No. 1 in the class; and Prep's Mikayla Blakes, who has narrowed her list down to seven finalists, including hometown Rutgers and also Indiana, Stanford, Tennessee, UCLA, Vanderbilt and Wisconsin.

In front of a crowd filled with college scouts at William Peace University, the Lady Crusaders hunkered down and pulled out a 59-55 victory that allowed them to finish the 2023 portion of their schedule with a perfect 15-0 record.

Official statistics for the Rutgers Prep win were not reported as of press time for this issue, but in the 71-21 win over South Meck, Icyss Storm led Grace with 16 points. Halisi Whitley added 15 points, including 3-6 shooting from beyond the arc, and also had six rebounds and four steals. Sarah Strong had a double-double with 10 points and 11 rebounds, while Isa Roman added 10 points, seven rebounds and five assists.

In that game, the Lady Crusaders scored exactly 20 points in each of the first three quarters and led 60-14 at that point, having already invoked the mercy rule before the third quarter concluded.

While Grace will face several more high-quality opponents before setting its sights on an NCISAA title three-peat in February, the Lady Crusaders will be favorites over everyone else they play.

Grace will travel to Legacy Early College (7-4), the sixth-ranked team in all of South Carolina, for a game this coming Friday at 6 p.m.