Mustang Lawrence Russell’s toes slid to the edge of the boundary as he bent down to grab a loose ball and sling it back in bounds. The athletic save sailed right to Tim Soares, who did the rest, slamming the ball with one hand and a high dose of emphasis.
The Master’s University’s 126-70 win over visiting Westcliff University on Friday otherwise wouldn’t qualify as a high-wire act. It was low on drama and full of highlights from Soares and the rest of the Mustangs, who moved to 9-1 with their eighth straight win.
Soares, the team’s 6-foot-10 center, scored 18 points on 8-of-11 shooting. And he did it in just 18 minutes. Russell netted 19 points, seven rebounds and four assists, the most agile of which wasn’t necessarily intentional.
“I honestly thought I was out of bounds. I didn’t know they were going to let me play that off,” Russell said. “… I didn’t even know Tim was there, either. I just threw it into play to give someone a chance.”
Most of TMU’s passes were more purposeful, as the Mustangs tallied 32 assists on 47 buckets.
“That’s probably the most glaringly fun stat for me to look at,” said coach Kelvin Starr.
Starr said he expects to be tested next week when the Mustangs fly from Burbank to Arizona for the Cactus Classic. TMU will play three games in three days against a trio of quality opponents. Baker from Kansas is 7-0, and Montana Western is ranked 17th nationally and averaging more than 104 points a game.
The rigors of said road trip will be a break from what’s been a cruise-controlled non-conference slate.
Entering Friday, Master’s was sixth in NAIA Division 1 in scoring differential (29.8) and 10th in scoring offense (95). Those margins will likely slim down as the Mustangs wade into Golden State Athletic Conference play, which opens on January 4 at TMU against Menlo College. GSAC coaches picked Master’s to finish first in a preseason poll.
“These games now are going to prepare us for when we get into the games that matter toward nationals,” Russell said. “So keeping the same energy throughout is what we’re going to try to work on.”
Russell admitted Master’s had another area of its game to clean up. At one point in the first half, a TMU pass skipped out of bounds and into the hands of a fan. Westcliff’s coach joked that the spectator could keep the ball as a souvenir. After 13 first-half turnovers, the Mustangs weren’t laughing. But solid shooting made up for the mishandles. Master’s knocked down 52% of its shots before the break and 54% for the game.
TMU’s Hodges Bailey scored 16 points on the strength of 4-of-7 shooting from three-point range. Travis Yenor and Hansel Atencia added 14 points each. Atencia had eight assists against one turnover.
Yenor made 2-of-4 treys and continued to impress Starr with his positive outlook after moving to a bench role in favor of Brock Gardner.
“Travis has been playing more free, and his attitude has been incredible,” Starr said. “And that’s why we’re good. Those are stories of why we’re good, because guys are buying in.”
Mike Taylor continued to inspire teammates with his athletic prowess. He slammed home an alley-oop from Gardner to put the Mustangs ahead 87-42 halfway through the second half. Soares, from the bench, mimicked an airplane, arms spread wide.
He used those limbs to blocks three shots, adding to his previous total of 30. Entering the night, he was on pace to finish the season with 96-plus rejections.
Paul Brown set TMU’s current single-season blocks record in 2011-2012. He topped out at 65.
Likewise, Master’s is hoping to be far from its max height this season. After nine days off, the team will travel to Chandler-Gilbert Community College for three games Dec. 17, 18 and 19.
On the tournament’s final day, the Mustangs will face Montana Western, which dropped from No. 8 to No. 17 in the second NAIA Division 1 Coaches’ Top 25 of the season despite a 7-1 record and a list of supreme statistics. As of Friday, the Bulldogs were third in NAIA Division 1 in points per game and first in defensive rebounds per game (37.8) and total rebound margin (19.3).
Their only loss came late last month at No. 11 Lewis-Clark State in Idaho.
Here’s the box score.
Entering Friday, Master’s was third in the country in defensive rebounds per game and total rebound margin.
The Mustangs remained at No. 5 in the latest top 25 poll.