By Christopher Lawlor
FORT MYERS, Fla. — Grace VanSlooten demonstrated why she is a McDonald’s All American. When the game is big, so is the 6-foot-3 inch forward from IMG Academy (Bradenton, Fla.). When the stakes are higher, VanSlooten wants the ball and produces.
You might call her clutch, but again that what is expected of a player of her ilk that is headed to Oregon in the fall. VanSlooten could have hung around her hometown of Toledo, Ohio for her senior year but opted for an experience that would take her game to another level.
That was case when she scored a game-high 24 points and grabbed 11 rebounds as the Ascenders knocked out Bishop McNamara (Forestville, Md.), 68-48x, in a rare play-in girls’ game at the GEICO High School Nationals in the Suncoast Credit Union Arena on the campus of Florida SouthWest State University.
There’s a reason why she is the No. 13 rated player from the Class of 2022 by ESPN. She’s special and her 10 of 15 accuracy from the floor, with a 3-pointer in the third quarter, plus four assists were the difference.
McNamara (20-6), a powerhouse program from the vaunted Washington Catholic Athletic Conference, fell behind 6-0 in the opening minutes but tied it at 6. That’s when IMG closed on a 16-4 run for a 22-10 lead after one.
Essentially it was over.
The Ascenders would take leads of 14, 16, 19, and 20 points in the second half. The Lady Mustangs had a glimmer of hope in the third quarter at 42-35 when talented sophomore guard Madisen McDaniel hit a short jump shot at 3:52. IMG then cobbled a 9-4 spurt to finish the quarter.
IMG’s Kailyn Gilbert finished with 15 points, eight rebounds and six assists and T’iana Todd added 10 points, four rebounds and two blocks. Overall, the Ascenders connected on 25 of 51 shots for 49%. They doubled up their opponent on the boards, 46-23.
Yonta Vaughn, a 5-7 guard who signed with West Virginia, added 12 points and Texas A&M-bound Gia Cooke netted nine points in their final appearances for the Lady Mustangs.
The Ascenders, who improved to 13-4, moved on to play top-seeded and nationally ranked New Hope Academy (Landover Hills, Md.) on Friday at 12:30 p.m. on ESPNU.
Once IMG took the lead, the game was theirs for the taking. And like any national team with a big-time reputation, the Ascenders never allowed McNamara within striking distance.
When Gilbert converted two free throws with 3.4 seconds left in the third quarter, the Ascenders were up comfortably at 52-39. Shae Mercer drilled two perimeter jumpers an 8-4 burst in the final three minutes that kept the Maryland squad at bay.
McNamara on three occasions made it close and within two possessions but IMG quickly regained its momentum.
IMG led 42-33 midway through the third VanSlooten canned two free throws. That was before both teams exchanged a flurry of threes with the up-tempo pace dictating the game’s rhythm.
In the first half, McNamara attempted to climb out of an early hole.
McNamara made a run late in the second quarter, IMG thwarted it. VanSlooten, who picked up two personal fouls and went to the bench, came on for the final seconds and converted an easy, short turnaround jumper to close out the half and a 33-25 lead. VanSlooten had 14 points at the break and McNamara’s Cooke and McDaniel each scored eight points for the Lady Mustangs.
IMG held a decisive 28-11 in rebounding for the opening 16 minutes and hit on 47% of its shots.
With three minutes left in the opening half, the Lady Mustangs pulled within six points, 26-20, when Moddy dropped in two free throws.
IMG maintained its double-digit lead at 26-16 with 4:29 left in the second quarter when VanSlooten crashed the offensive glass for a putback. It was apparent that IMG came ready to play and did not let the layoff from February affect their offensive flow.
VanSlooten capped off an exciting first stanza, swishing a 3-pointer from the left corner and the Ascenders led 22-10. The Lady Mustangs showed their rust from more than a month off. VanSlooten accounted for 10 points during the onslaught.
In the opening four minutes, both teams pushed the pace. It was a track meet on the hardwood and headed to a game in the high 80s with IMG leading 11-6. McNamara scored twice on 3s from deep but could not hold IMG’s inside game.
IMG lived to play another day.