It was such a simple, realistic plan. Beat Hope International on Bross Court and have Biola lose at Westmont, giving the Mustangs their first, opening-round home game in the GSAC Tournament in years.
It worked to perfection in Santa Barbara where Biola held up its end of the deal, losing at Westmont. The other part of the deal didn’t work out, however, as Hope International built a double-digit lead in the first half, kept it there during most of the second stanza, and then held off a furious Mustang rally, winning 64-58 in the regular-season finale for both clubs.
The defeat was the second in a row for the Mustangs (18-11 overall), who finished seventh in the GSAC (6-8), and set up a first-round tournament matchup at No. 2 seed and 16th-ranked Arizona Christian next Thursday evening.
Realistically, the Royals had nothing to play for, having sewn up the third seed in the tournament. However, they had been on a roll of late, winning five in a row, and a win over the Mustangs would keep that skein alive and give them their 20th win of the campaign.
They made their way toward that goal early, racing to a 13-6 lead in the game’s first five minutes. The Mustangs were having a difficult time finding an offensive rhythmn after guard Dominique Lanier (Lakewood, CA) limped off with an ankle injury less than three minutes into play. Hitting just two of their first 14 shots from the field, the Mustangs floundered, something the Royals took full advantage to increase their advantage to 19-8 on a Garrett Neilan three-point play with 9:27 left in the first half.
Showing some much-needed life, the Mustangs struck back with five straight points as Zach Stalin (Bellingham, WA) came off the bench to drain a three-pointer and Chris Patureau (Houston, TX) scored on a layup to make it a 19-13 game with 7:46 showing on the first-half clock.
That stemmed the tide for a few minutes before the Royals launched a long-distance attack, burying a trio of three-pointers in a 2:44 window as part of an 11-3 run that extended the advantage to 30-16 at the 4:28 mark.
On the verge of being run out of their own gym, the Mustangs responded with another 5-0 burst, closing to 30-21 on a Korey Anderson (Clovis, CA) layup with 1:30 remaining in the opening stanza.
Hope’s Matt Green answered with his fifth trifecta of the half, giving the visitors a 12-point lead before Stalin closed out the stanza’s scoring on a three-point play that drew the Mustangs within nine points (33-24) at the break.
The Mustangs connected on just 39% (10-26) of their shots during the first half while the Royals hit at a 48% clip, highlighted by six trifectas.
That kind of shooting bridged the halves as the Royals outscored the Mustangs 14-5 in the first eight minutes of the closing stanza. The highlight of that stretch was a 10-2 run that gave the visitors their largest lead of the game (47-29) with just under 12 minutes remaining.
Just when it appeared that the Mustangs were dead, they came to life in a dramatic way, using a 12-3 burst that halved the deficit and made it a 50-41 game with under seven minutes left to play. An Anderson layup triggered the run and three-pointers from Derrick Fain (Dallas, TX) and Bernard Ireland (Victorville, CA) contributed to it as the Mustangs drew to within nine points.
However, the Royals rebuffed that rally, scoring on their next three possessions to restore order, or so it seemed, at 54-41 with 4:26 remaining.
Two minutes later, the Mustangs were still down by 13 points (56-43), yet they still had plenty of life left. Employing a full-court press and fouling at nearly every opportunity, the Mustangs slowly whittled the deficit to within striking distance.
As the Royals started to miss at the line, the Mustangs didn’t, nailing six consecutive free throws to pull within 56-49 at the 1:34 mark. A Fain free throw with 17 seconds left made it a 60-56 game and after Neilan sank a pair of free throws, Fain answered one more time with a jumper.
However, the Mustangs couldn’t take advantage of a careless mistake by the Royals and the visitors iced the game on two Green free throws.
Anderson and Ireland paced the Mustangs with 12 points apiece while Stalin added 11 more and Fain chipped in with 10.
With the regular season complete, the Mustangs turn their attention to the postseason and the Firestorm. The clubs split a pair of contests this season, each winning on their respective floors. The Mustangs edged ACU 77-76 in double overtime on January 18 while the Firestorm returned the favor, 81-70, three weeks later in Phoenix.