DCA’s Mbugua turns heads at Sweet 16 with ‘gutsiest performance’

Published 4:15 pm Monday, March 25, 2024

The word is out on Grace Mbugua.

If there were high school basketball fans who didn’t know about Mbugua and the many ways she can affect a game, they certainly know after her performance on the state’s biggest stage.

Mbugua delivered one of the top individual performances the state tournament has seen in recent years Thursday to give Danville Christian a chance to win in its debut at the Girls Sweet 16.

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She put up 34 points and 14 rebounds against one of the best defensive teams in the state in the Lady Warriors’ 65-63 loss to Cooper on March 14 at Rupp Arena – and she played the entire second half with four fouls.

“I’ve been watching tournament basketball since I was 5 years old,” DCA coach Billy Inmon said. “I’ve seen just unbelievable tournament games, and I thought that was the gutsiest performance I’d ever seen.”

It was the first time most of the 4,557 fans in Rupp Arena had seen Mbugua in action, and it’s safe to say many of them – including a number of those on press row – were impressed.

Here is a sampling of what members of media had to say on X (formerly Twitter) during and after the game:

  • “I’ve seen all I need to say Grace Mbugua is one of the best players I’ve ever seen on this floor.” – Lexington Herald-Leader contributor Josh Moore, during the first quarter
  • “Grace Mbugua is a Power 5 player. I’ve seen enough. Great touch, handles it well and the size, of course.” – Link nky sports editor Evan Dennison, during the second quarter
  • “Grace Mbugua might be the most underrated player in the country.” – Rise Up Sports Media

Mbugua, who had never been inside Rupp Arena until last week, has averaged a double-double since her eighth-grade season and has continually added to her skill set, becoming a more versatile scorer, a better ball-handler, a smarter defender and rebounder and a more confident player.

The 6-4 junior averaged 25.7 points and 15.4 rebounds this season, leading the state in rebounding for the third straight season – she was recognized for that Sunday during the Mr. and Miss. Kentucky Basketball Awards Ceremony – and ranking fifth in the state in scoring and sixth in field goal percentage (.618).

“She’s a super talent,” Cooper coach Justin Holthaus said. “With her ability to handle the ball the length of the court, her ability to stretch the floor and make jump shots and her ability to score around the rim, she’s a really special player.”

While Mbugua has increasingly become the center of attention at DCA, she remains as humble as ever, unconcerned about her own statistics or who gets the credit for the Lady Warriors’ success.

Still, she is the one player DCA has to have on the court to have a chance to win. That’s why she was put back into the game in the second quarter just over a minute after she committed her third foul, a decision Inmon said he didn’t regret even after she got her fourth foul moments later.

“She’s only fouled out of one game all year, so it’s extremely rare for that to happen,” Inmon said. “I looked at her and I said, ‘Hey, I’m very proud of you. Don’t beat yourself up,’ because she doesn’t need to. When she does something stupid, I’m sure to call her out and she’s tough (enough) to take it.

“I thought she played it smart, honestly.”

Mbugua’s name may be more widely known now, including by college coaches who hadn’t realized she committed to Liberty before her freshman season, but it is seldom used by her teammates and coaches. They almost always call her “Baby,” the nickname she got shortly after she arrived at DCA.

“She was 5-8, 12 years old and she was knobby-kneed and didn’t weigh anything and we would just joke and say, ‘Aww, it’s da baby,’ and it just stuck,” Inmon said. “I mean, no one calls her Grace. When I call her Grace every once in a while, she looks at me like, ‘What are you doing?’ So it just stuck.”


Mission accomplished

Inmon said DCA’s players were focused not only on their success but also on the future success of their school during their first trip to the Girls Sweet 16.

He said that was evident to him both during the game and earlier in the day, when they spent time with some of DCA’s youngest students during a sendoff at the school.

“Really for them it’s about the mission and DCA,” Inmon said. “They were out there today … spending time with the little ones, the little 4-, 5-, 6-, 7-year-old girls, trying to mentor them because they want the mission of DCA to grow. They see what it does in kids’ lives, and they carry this burden heavy.”

Braxtyn Heck, one of the Lady Warriors’ two seniors and the player who has been in DCA’s basketball program longer than any of her teammates, said she believes the way the Lady Warriors played Thursday will help further that mission.

“It totally impacts it,” Heck said. “You have those little girls that see that we don’t quit. And I want that mission to keep going, to have that grit because you never know what the Lord has in store for what teams are going to be next. And I just pray that he keeps our mission going through those little girls that are looking up and watching us.”


Hot start

DCA’s last game in a statewide tournament was over almost as soon as it started, but the Lady Warriors didn’t let that happen a second time.

They fell behind Owensboro Catholic 20-4 less than five minutes into their All “A” Classic quarterfinal Jan. 26 in Corbin and were unable to recover in a 79-49 loss in which Mbugua fouled out in the third quarter and the team committed 25 turnovers.

They started strong against Cooper, jumping out to a 15-6 lead that allayed any fears about whether their nerves would get the best of them in such a big game.

“I was shocked, honestly, because usually we do freak out under pressure, but I think we did really, really good,” Heck said.

Inmon said a good start wasn’t a point of emphasis, saying he talked to one of his high school coaches about how to handle state tournament jitters.

“He said, ‘Just make sure they understand they can win,’” Inmon said. “I was trying to calm them down and I just kept telling them, ‘Glorify God with your effort and your attitude. Don’t worry about the other stuff.’ … And they were just fearless.”