KANSAS CITY, Mo. – The way Lawrence Russell vowed not to let The Master’s University men’s basketball team lose another game and then seemingly willed the Mustangs into overtime, it would be hard not to believe him.
“They’ll be back,” Russell said standing in a hallway outside TMU’s Municipal Auditorium locker room Wednesday after a 106-104 loss to Peru State College in the first round of the NAIA Division 1 National Championship tournament.
How could the Mustangs’ lone senior, who scored 17 of his team-high 27 points in the final 5:30 of regulation, be so sure his teammates would return to Kansas City, Missouri, in a year’s time?
“They’re young and they’re talented,” said Russell, who raced the length of the court and hit a layup at the buzzer to extend the game. “… It hurts losing in the first round with high expectations. I feel like this loss will make them work even harder next year to not feel like this again.”
Master’s, the tournament’s No. 1 overall seed, is set to return 11 players from a team that went 29-3 this season, winning the program’s first-ever regular-season Golden State Athletic Conference title and its second straight GSAC tournament title.
Junior point guard Hansel Atencia will be the squad’s leading returner on offense, after tossing in 15.5 points and 4.2 assists per game. The All-GSAC performer hit a handful of crucial, difficult buckets late in Wednesday’s loss, and he later echoed Russell’s feelings about the future.
“We’ll keep thinking about what happened this year over and over again,” Atencia said. “(Because) we don’t want that to happen next year. That’s going to motivate us.”
The Mustangs will also feature sophomore center Tim Soares, a 6-foot-10 All-GSAC pick who ended the year averaging 14.3 points and 8.4 rebounds, both improved marks from his freshman season.
He also broke TMU’s single-season blocks record with 89.
Foul trouble limited Soares to 14 minutes against Peru State, but coach Kelvin Starr is confident one of the nation’s best rim protectors will continue to propel the program moving forward.
“His passion and desire to be good is going to take him to a whole nother level,” said Starr, who was named the National Association of Basketball Coaches-NAIA Coach of the Year at a banquet inside the home of Kansas City’s Major League Soccer franchise before the tournament.
In two seasons as Mustangs head coach, Starr has compiled a 56-8 record, with five of the losses coming by two points or less.
In 2018-19, he should again deploy a deep, talented group with sophomore Brock Gardner (12.5 points, 8.2 rebounds in 17-18), junior Delewis Johnson (9.6ppg, 5.3rpg) and sophomore Darryl McDowell-White (6ppg) playing crucial roles.
As a freshman, Hodges Bailey hit a number of clutch three-point shots and proved to be a gamer on defense. Sophomore Travis Yenor and junior Keegan Scott provide consistent shooting range, and freshman Michael Taylor made progress as a physical presence around the paint.
Against Peru State, Taylor played arguably his best game of the season, racking up 10 points and eight rebounds, five of the offensive variety.
Gavin Dejong (a 6-8 junior transfer from NCAA Division 1 University of Montana) and Dallas Cunningham (a bouncy 6-7 freshman-to-be) both redshirted at TMU this season and should complement the returners moving forward.
“It’ll be fun,” said Gardner, who scored 18 points and pulled down 17 rebounds again Peru State, his fifth double-double of the season. “We’re hoping to make another run at it.”