By: Mason Nesbitt, Sports Information Director
KANSAS CITY, Missouri — As The Master’s University men’s basketball team interacted with elementary students inside Municipal Auditorium on Wednesday, one child asked an assistant coach to take a selfie.
“The whole world’s going to see us,” the boy told a friend after the picture.
While that might have been an exaggeration, the Mustangs are on the cusp of playing on the NAIA’s biggest stage, and the fact that they’ve been here each of the past three years may give them an edge.
“Being in the spotlight, if guys come out and haven’t seen those lights before in an arena, it can be tough once the lights are on,” said junior Darryl McDowell-White. “You might feel like you have to do something extra or do this and do that. I feel like being here a year before, with basically the same team, gives us a level of comfort that we need to succeed at this level.”
The Mustangs will play the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma in the first round of the NAIA Division 1 tournament here Thursday at 7:15 p.m. PST.
The Mustangs (27-5) are a No. 2 seed, the Drovers (20-10), a No. 7.
The game, which will be broadcast live on the NAIA Network, provides an opportunity for redemption for a Master’s team that entered last year’s tournament as the No. 1 overall seed.
The Mustangs fell behind, forced overtime and ultimately lost to Peru State in the first round, leaving a bitter taste that coach Kelvin Starr hopes hasn’t yet worn off.
“That should be motivation enough to come out and play hard and be ready to play,” Starr said.
Point guard Hansel Atencia, an All-Golden State Athletic Conference pick for the Mustangs, said Wednesday that he, for one, had not forgotten.
“I feel like all I thought about during the season is the first round of nationals and how disappointing it was,” Atencia said. “I don’t want that to happen again. It’s my last year. It’s (Delewis Johnson’s) last year, and I know all the guys who experienced that with me last year don’t want that to happen.”
Science and Arts received votes in the most recent NAIA Division 1 Top 25 poll and finished third in the tough Sooner Athletic Conference, seeming to raise the level of its game against its stiffest competition.
The Drovers went 5-3 this season against ranked teams, the three losses coming by an average of fewer than five points.
“It shows they are really good and they should be higher than a seven seed,” Starr said.
The Drovers feature four players who average double figures in scoring — six who score at least eight points a night. Their leading scorer, forward Dedrian Parmer (15.2 ppg), leads the country in field goal percentage, at better than 72%.
“We have to play literally 30 seconds of defense every time, can’t get lazy, and we have to stay on our assignments,” said McDowell-White.
The Drovers have also been tough to keep off the glass. They’re fifth nationally in defensive rebounding, and Starr has heard rumors of their exploits on the other end.
“The thing I’ve heard is they are really good on the offensive glass,” Starr said. “So we have to control the boards. They are pretty athletic and long, so they can mess things up potentially for you with their length. We just can’t rush offensively, can’t fall into the trap of taking the first open shot. We have to make them play D.”
As for Wednesday, the Mustangs sat in the stands in the cavernous Municipal Auditorium, talking to students from Havencroft Elementary about what it means to be college athletes.
“They are the future,” Atencia said. “So we told them about us and our stories and what it takes to be an athlete, all the effort we put into practice and how we have to go out there and compete and do our best. … They wanted to hear about our experience, so I think it was good to get to know them better and share something about us.”
What did they want to know?
“I think they heard my accent,” Atencia said. “They asked where I was from. I told them I was from Colombia. They thought it was cool I’m from another country.”