By Mason Nesbitt, Sports Information Director
KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Before Wednesday night’s NAIA Division 1 National Championship tournament opener, Master’s assistant coach Thomas Lowery and senior Lawrence Russell came to an understanding.
“I said, ‘Lo, are you going to let us drop a game,'” Lowery recounted after the Mustang’s 106-104 overtime loss to Peru State College inside Municipal Auditorium. “He said, ‘No, coach, I got you.'”
Over the final 5:30 of regulation, Russell willed the Mustangs (29-3) out of a nearly 6-foot-deep hole and into an ill-fated overtime period.
The senior wing scored 17 of his team-high 27 points in that span. He raced the length of the court and hit a lay-up at the buzzer to send the game to overtime. He capped a two-year Mustang career with a game befitting his legacy.
“I just didn’t want my season to end that way,” Russell said. “I didn’t want it to end without at least giving us a chance. So I tried to will the team to win.”
Down two with under 10 seconds left in overtime, Russell hurtled the length of the court, again. This time his floater didn’t fall. This time there’d be no comeback for one of the most prolific teams in TMU history.
The Mustangs won their first-ever Golden State Athletic Conference regular season title, the GSAC tournament title and earned the school’s first No. 1 NAIA ranking.
But only one overall No. 1 seed has won the national tournament since 2002. And Master’s didn’t double the number after a slow start to the first half (it shot 34 percent before the break), a 16-point second-half deficit and an overtime period when it couldn’t find the handle on many rebounds.
Neither team led by more than three in extra time. The score was tied three times.
“It was exciting,” said TMU coach Kelvin Starr. “We just didn’t guard the whole night and didn’t stay in front of people. We had two people beat us all night.”
Bobcat guards Quantice Hunter and James Westbrook combined for 58 points. Westbrook had 21 at halftime, when Peru State led 41-33.
The Mustangs finally drew even at 73-73 with 4:48 to play. But the Bobcats went on a quick 8-0 run that necessitated Russell’s heroics.
The senior wasn’t alone. Junior Hansel Atencia hit clutch buckets at the end of regulation and overtime to keep the Mustangs alive. He finished with 21 points and six assists.
TMU sophomore Brock Gardner scored 18 points and pulled down 17 rebounds. He blocked two shots and had three steals.
“It hurts,” Gardner said. “You prepare all season and achieve a couple goals … and then you come into the tournament and lose first round. It’s frustrating.”
And Russell’s performance?
“It’s amazing,” Gardner said. “Definitely something we’re going to miss. It seems like every close game we’d have, he’d flip a switch.”