Sure, it was an exhibition. However, this was no ordinary exhibition.
Playing with mid-season intensity for a new coaching staff in front of a frenzied crowd, The Master’s University men’s basketball team went toe-to-toe with NCAA Division II Azusa Pacific before falling 90-85 Tuesday evening on Bross Court.
The Mustangs didn’t look anything like last year’s 4-20 squad that limped to the finish line. Instead, fueled by a dynamic recruiting class and a solid core of veteran returnees, they gave early hope to a program desperately in search of a turnaround.
First-year head coach Kelvin Starr saw some of that, saying, “We’re always disappointed when we lose, but we are thrilled with how hard the guys played. We hung tough with a very good APU team.”
It didn’t look that way early, though, as the Cougars used a 13-0 run to bolt to a 15-2 lead in the first 4:20 of play. Instead of caving, however, the Mustangs fought back, using a 9-2 spurt to close to 17-11 with 13:09 left in the first half. Sophomore Delewis Johnson sparked the run with four points, senior Reid Shackelford added a three-pointer, and junior transfer Lawrence Russell capped it with a jumper.
A Hansel Atencia layup with 9:46 remaining pulled the Mustangs within 26-21, however, that was as close as they would get until the waning seconds of the opening stanza as APU reasserted itself once again, outscoring TMU 14-5 in a 3:43 window to extend the lead to a game-high 14 points, 40-26.
The Mustangs countered with seven straight points, highlighted by consecutive buckets from Johnson, to close to 40-33 and then when Johnson added another layup with 11 seconds left, the club went to halftime down just 48-43.
TMU was fortunate to be that close after APU shot 68% (17-25) in the opening half. However, it was the trio of Atencia, Johnson, and Russell that kept the Mustangs in the game, scoring 11 points apiece. The Mustangs shot nearly 46% (15-33) from the field in the first stanza.
They improved on that mark in the second half (shooting 47%) while clamping down on the Cougars. The first evidence of that came in the opening moments of the final stanza when the Mustangs limited APU to just three points in the first five minutes while scoring 12 points themselves to turn a five-point deficit into a four-point lead (55-51) with 14:44 left in the game.
Freshman Travis Yenor triggered the burst with a three-pointer, fellow freshman Tim Soares hit a jumper, Shackelford drained another trey to put the Mustangs ahead, and Atencia tacked on two driving layups as TMU caught and passed APU.
After the Cougars fought back to tie the game at 55-all, a Lawrence jumper fueled a quick 6-1 burst that gave the Mustangs their largest lead of the evening, 61-56. Then it was APU’s turn as they ripped off eight consecutive points in less than a minute to go back in front 64-61 with 10:38 left to play.
A Shackelford trifecta, one of his four three-pointers on the evening, evened the game 17 seconds later and no more than five points separated the clubs the rest of the way. That five-point margin (85-80) was owned by APU with 2:30 left on the clock after the Cougars snapped the last (80-80) of three ties in a five-minute span.
Still, the Mustangs weren’t about to go easy. They rallied back with five straight points to even the game once again as Shackelford took over, hitting a jumper to pull the Mustangs within three before tying the game on a three-point play with 1:38 left.
A Connor Peterson free throw at the 1:20 mark unlocked the tie (86-85) and the Mustangs had a chance to go in front with 24 seconds left but Russell missed two from the line, APU’s Austin Dyer countered with two foul shots for a three-point lead, and a Mustang turnover in the closing seconds clinched the win for APU.
The Mustangs, who turned 22 Cougar turnovers into 27 points, wound up shooting 46.5% (33-71) from the field while APU hit at a 58% (29-50) clip.
Johnson and Shackelford led five Mustangs in double figures with 17 points apiece while Russell was impressive in his Mustang debut, notching a double-double with 16 points and 11 rebounds, and handing out a game-high five assists. Atencia chipped in with 15 points and Soares tacked on 10 more.
The Mustangs will learn from this one and then travel to Cedar City, Utah, for an exhibition against Southern Utah on Saturday evening.