On a night when The Master’s University men’s basketball team dug a hole too deep to climb out of, a historical turnaround came to an end in a heartbreaking 77-75 loss to Texas Wesleyan at the NAIA Division I Men’s National Tournament in Municipal Auditorium on Friday.
After recording just four wins last year, the Mustangs reversed field dramatically in 2016-17, going 27-5, winning the GSAC Tournament for the first time in program history, earning a No. 8 ranking prior to the national tourney, and returning to the tournament for the first time since 2000. The five losses equaled the fewest in school annals, matching the 1993-94 and 1994-95 national tournament squads that went 28-5 and 31-5, respectively.
Head coach Kelvin Starr, who oversaw the about-face, would have liked one less loss and another game toward a possible national championship, but couldn’t help but be effusive in his praise following the game, saying, “I’m so proud of this group of young men that made the historic turnaround possible. I’m also thankful for my assistant coach, Troy Leaf. His value to the program is huge.”
The Mustangs had to fight from behind from the start, falling behind 4-0 before senior Reid Shackelford hit a jumper with 14:07 left in the first half to give the club a 9-7 lead. Two possessions later, the Mustangs found themselves down 12-9.
However, Delewis Johnson came off the bench to spark a 9-0 run, scoring seven of the points to move the Mustangs in front 18-12 at the 11:45 mark. It was the squad’s largest lead of the evening.
The Rams answered with six straight points and then rambled to a 23-20 lead with 8:18 left before halftime. Then in a first half that featured five ties and seven lead changes, the momentum turned back in the Mustangs’ favor as Johnson spearheaded another run, scoring all seven points in a 1:29 window to send his team back in front, 29-25.
There were several more lead changes in the closing moments of the first half until Hansel Atencia drained a three-pointer with 1:02 left to give the Mustangs a 35-34 lead. They led 37-36 at halftime after shooting 45.5% from the field with Johnson leading the way with 16 points.
Early in the second half, the Mustangs relinquished the lead (38-37) and then ripped off five straight points to take a 42-38 advantage with 17:32 left to play. Shackelford ignited the brief run with a three-pointer and Lawrence Russell capped it with a bucket.
A little over two minutes later (14:50), the Rams regained the lead for good, rattling off seven straight points to make it a 45-42 game. The Mustangs stayed close until an 11-2 burst by the Rams turned a one-point game (49-48) into a 60-50 advantage.
That proved to be too difficult for the Mustangs to overcome although they made a huge effort and nearly pulled out an improbable win. The rally began with 2:05 remaining when freshman Trevor Yenor converted three free throws that fueled an 8-0 run, drawing the Mustangs to 71-69 less than a minute later. Yenor added a three-pointer during the burst and when Atencia hit a basket in the lane at the 1:14 mark, it was a two-point game.
The Rams expanded the margin to four points on a couple of Ryan Harris free throws 40 seconds later and the junior guard duplicated that with 11 seconds remaining to put the game just out of reach because Atencia drained a three-pointer with two seconds left, pulling the Mustangs with 76-75. After Dion Rogers hit one free throw, he missed the second to keep the door open but Shackelford’s full-court heave at the buzzer hit off the backboard, leaving a bunch of disappointed Mustangs to contemplate what could have been.
After a respectable first half of shooting, the Mustangs managed just 28% accuracy in the second stanza, finishing at 36% for the game.
Johnson and Atencia paced five Mustangs in double figures, scoring 16 points apiece. Shackelford, playing his final game in the blue and gold, and Russell threw in 13 points each while Yenor finished with 10.