By Mason Nesbitt, TMU Sports Information Director
Delewis Johnson can point to a moment where the trajectory of The Master’s University men’s basketball team’s season changed.
Sometime in the second half of TMU’s game at Hope International on Feb. 7, Johnson says the Mustangs let go of personal aspirations, whether for conference or national awards, and set their sights on what the group could accomplish as a unit.
In the end — after Master’s overcame a 19-point deficit in that second half, won its next five games and secured its second straight Golden State Athletic Conference regular-season title — a number of personal awards followed, nonetheless.
Tuesday, Tim Soares was named GSAC Defensive Player of the Year for the second consecutive season; Kelvin Starr was named Coach of the Year, again; and Johnson and Hansel Atencia were both named All-GSAC team members.
“Our theme all year has been that selfless mentality,” Starr said. “Because we have such great balance, we can afford to double down on that. We felt like replacing (graduated All-American) Lawrence (Russell) had to be done by committee. I thought the only thing that could hold us back was selfishness, even if it was subconscious.”
Starr doesn’t believe any player intentionally hurt the team by pursuing individual accolades, but there was an element where guys wanted to achieve personal goals (“Not necessarily a bad thing,” Starr says).
Still, Starr addressed the topic with his team around the time of the game at Hope.
“The conversation went like, ‘Let’s put aside the personal goals because this time of year those things have probably been decided anyway. Let’s not worry about those things,'” Starr, who also won Coach of the Year last season, recalls saying.
By beating Vanguard on Feb. 23, the Mustangs earned at least a share of the GSAC title, becoming the first men’s team to repeat as champions since Concordia won three straight titles from 2009-2012. TMU claimed the crown outright five days later with a home win over Hope.
Soares finished the regular season first in the GSAC in blocked shots (62), tied for second in rebounds per game (8.6), and 10th in scoring (15.4 points per game).
His rebound and scoring averages both represented career highs.
“I’m honored and thankful once again,” said Soares, who was also an All-GSAC pick for the second straight season. “My family and coaches and teammates put me in position to win this award.”
Then there’s the speedy point guard.
Since he arrived on TMU’s campus with a dynamic offensive skillset, Atencia has sought to walk the line between creating his own shot and creating for others.
This season he employed the balance of a tightrope artist. The senior averaged 5.4 assists — eighth most in the country and a career high — and still led the team in scoring at 18 points per game.
“I’ve worked hard to be a leader and help my team win as many games as possible this season,” said Atencia. “I think it’s cool that people noticed that. The GSAC is full of really talented players so I think that makes it even better.”
Starr believes it’s on defense where Atencia has shown the most dramatic improvement.
The senior is No. 6 nationally in steals (62), a career high.
“He’s improved a ton over the last two-plus years in that area,” Starr said. “That’s a credit to him maturing on that end.”
Johnson has seen it all at Master’s. The fourth-year player was a member of the Mustang team that won four games in 2015-16, and he’s been crucial to the last three seasons when the program has reached NAIA nationals for the first three times since 2000.
The team has gone 81-13 under Starr during those years, Starr’s first three at the school.
This season Johnson has been a focal point on offense, where he’s averaged 15.5 points a game, second most on the team and by far a career high.
“He’s increased his role, no question,” said Starr. “But his role is broad. It’s not just increasing his scoring. It’s being an elite defender, being a leader, all those things you should be doing. He’s been huge for us.
“I’ve seen tons of growth in D.J. the last three years. It’s been fun to watch.”
The Mustangs will open the GSAC tournament on Friday at 7:30 p.m. in Rocklin, California.
As the No. 1 seed, Master’s earned a quarterfinal bye and will play the winner of Westmont and Arizona Christian.