Inside the Honda Center media room Saturday, after a CIF girls basketball final, a Los Angeles-area reporter asked me about The Master’s University men’s basketball team.
One word came to mind: fun.
The Mustangs fly up and down the court. They shoot 3-pointers with accuracy. They attack the rim with aggression. They plaster points on the scoreboard with the ease of an artist splattering an easel.
Then Tuesday night’s Golden State Athletic Conference title game — in which TMU beat Hope International of Fullerton, 79-74, in double overtime — reminded everyone why the Mustangs (26-4) have won 22 more games than they did all of last season, why they’ve won 15 of their last 16 and why they’re headed to the NAIA national tournament for the first time since 2000.
One word: tough.
Freshman center Tim Soares used all of his 6-foot-10 frame to swat a Hope shot with 13 seconds left in regulation to preserve a 60-60 tie.
He finished with four of TMU’s seven blocks, while do-everything transfer Lawrence Russell finished with five steals.
In the second overtime, the Mustangs forced three turnovers and held Hope to six points, escaping with the first GSAC tourney title in program history.
Yes, TMU — infused with two standout freshmen and several stellar transfers — is gifted offensively. They scored more points on average than any GSAC team this season (87.7 points).
But, TMU progressed from a pleasant turnaround story, to a GSAC tourney title winner, to an NAIA national championship contender behind an increased commitment to toughness, specifically on defense.
It started with a rare Sunday night practice on Jan. 8.
Fresh off a 32-point shellacking at the hands of Hope a day earlier, TMU players shuffled onto Bross Court around 9 p.m., warmed up and jumped into “five stops,” a five-on-five drill that demands defensive perfection.
The group on defense can’t allow dribble penetration, an open 3-pointer, an offensive rebound or a backdoor cut, much less a basket.
Execution in those areas for one possession equals a stop. First team to five wins; losers run.
The practice lasted nearly three hours.
“(We were) just beating each other up and learning how to play defense,” says first-year coach Kelvin Starr, “learning how to take a hit and score when getting fouled. We weren’t calling a lot of fouls, just competing, getting dirty and grimy in the half-court.”
That’s the culture Starr intended to build at TMU when he took the job this summer. He knew it wouldn’t happen overnight. In the meantime, the Mustangs thrived on offense, scoring more than 100 points in four of their first five games and sprinting to a 7-0 start.
The spurt created instant buzz.
Starr told The Signal around that time he believed TMU was capable of winning its first-ever GSAC title.
Then the team dropped three of its first four conference games, the nadir coming at home on Jan. 7.
Hope out-rebounded TMU 51-33 and made nearly 60 percent of its shots (7-of-13 from three-point range) en route to an 88-56 win.
“It felt like (Hope) pretty much punked us and outmuscled us,” says TMU senior guard Evan Jenkins. “They played harder and they competed harder.”
With tipoff against Humboldt State less than 24 hours away, TMU hit the gym that Sunday night.
“That set the tone for how we wanted to play,” Jenkins says. “We want to be a team known for toughness and known for our defense. We knew that the type of intensity we had in that practice was what we needed to bring to beat Hope.”
And everyone else. The Mustangs won their next eight games before losing to Hope again on Feb. 9, this time by 10.
The gap was closing.
Over the last month, an absolute belief formed within TMU’s athletic department that the Mustangs would run the table in the GSAC tournament.
They did, knocking off Arizona Christian in the quarterfinals on Friday and Biola of La Mirada in the semis one day later before toppling Hope in Tuesday’s final in Fullerton.
Starr credits buy-in to roles as part of the turnaround within a turnaround.
Senior Reid Shackelford, the team’s leading scorer, is “really, really working at a whole ’nother level defensively than he ever has,” according to Starr.
“If you’re going to be a leader,” the coach says, “and going to get on people, you have to do it at both ends (of the floor) and he’s learned to do that.”
Jenkins, humbled by a smaller offensive role than last season, has served as a defensive stopper, too.
Success at that end of the floor, though, starts with GSAC Defensive Player of the Year Russell and with Soares.
Those two helped TMU hold Hope to 35.9 percent shooting from the field Tuesday. The rebounding battle still favored Hope, but only by a 49-44 margin.
Now, the question is whether TMU will pack that intensity for its first trip to the NAIA tournament in more than a decade.
The Mustangs learned Wednesday they had earned a No. 2 seed and would play Benedictine of Kansas in the first round on March 16 in Kansas City, Missouri.
Did anyone see this much success coming this soon?
“I don’t believe anyone would say now that they knew this was going to happen,” says TMU Athletic Director Steve Waldeck, “… and be telling the truth.”