By Mason Nesbitt
For The Signal
In all likelihood, The MacArthur Center will be void of cable TV cameras on Thursday night.
But The Master’s University’s men’s and women’s basketball double-header has all the makings of a thrilling, high-stakes drama nonetheless.
Both games are NAIA Division 1 top 25 matchups.
Both could go a long way in deciding the Golden State Athletic Conference titles.
Both feature several of the best players in the GSAC if not the country.
Here’s a look at what to expect when Master’s and Arizona Christian University get together on Thursday.
The women tip off at 5:30 p.m., with the men at 7:30.
Women: No. 24 ACU (15-6, 8-1 GSAC) vs. No. 10 TMU (16-4, 8-1)
This is a rematch of a Dec. 1 meeting in Phoenix when the Firestorm used a strong third quarter to deal the Mustangs their second loss in three games.
In at least one way, it was a turning point.
The Mustangs have since developed into one of the nation’s best defenses, holding 10 of their next 12 opponents to fewer than 50 points. The squad has won 11 of its last 12 games.
This time, first place in GSAC standings is on the line.
Both Master’s and ACU enter the game at 8-1 in conference play, with nine GSAC games remaining.
The Firestorm feature Courtney Christmas and Makayla Enders, both NAIA All-Americans a year ago and two of the GSAC’s most capable scorers.
Enders went for 24 points against the Mustangs in December, when TMU built a 19-15 lead after the first quarter and trailed by three at half. But Arizona Christian outscored its guests 14-6 in the third quarter on the way to a 71-63 win.
Christmas was relatively quiet with eight points, considering she leads the GSAC in scoring at 20.9 points a game. She led the conference in that category last season, too.
Christmas scored 32 and 20 points in two games against the Mustangs last season, both ACU wins. The Firestorm have won three straight against TMU.
The Mustangs will counter Christmas’ star power with 6-foot-6 freshman Stephanie Soares, who on Monday was named GSAC Player of the Week for her efforts between Jan. 15-20.
In two wins over No. 9 Vanguard and Life Pacific last week, Soares averaged 16.5 points, 17 rebounds, three assists and three blocks.
She leads NAIA Division 1 in double-doubles as of Monday, with 16.
The Mustangs also feature a deep, talented group of guards, including Valencia High grad Sabrina Thompson.
Guards Jamilee Iddings (15 points), Brooke Bailey (11) and Tristen Coltom (11) all scored in double figures Saturday.
Forward Anika Neuman also chipped in 11 points. She scored 16 points on 4-of-6 shooting from deep against the Firestorm the first time around.
These teams, of course, could meet again in March at the GSAC tournament.
Men: No. 21 ACU (17-3, 5-3) vs. No. 5 TMU (17-3, 6-2)
The Mustangs have won 32-straight home games dating to 2017, but that streak will face arguably its fiercest test yet on Thursday.
Master’s and Arizona Christian met Dec. 1 in Phoenix in what TMU forward Michael Taylor described as “a battle.”
The Mustangs trailed by 11 at half before outscoring their hosts by 18 over the final 20 minutes to escape with a 100-93 win.
Brock Gardner scored a career-high 31 points on 12-of-21 shooting, the Mustangs running their offense through the 6-7 junior forward.
Callum Lawson scored 27 points to lead the Firestorm, who were 7-0 entering the game.
ACU’s offensive output was no aberration.
As of Monday, the Firestorm were No. 2 nationally in scoring offense at 95.1 points a game. They feature three of the GSAC’s top seven scorers.
Lawson, a 6-6 forward, leads the conference at 20.9 points a night, while guard Terence Shelby Jr. (19.2 ppg) is fifth and point guard Shane Carney (17.5 ppg) is seventh.
A Mustang defense that has been one of the conference’s best will have its hands full.
TMU has held opponents to 40% from the floor, best in the GSAC, but the Mustangs last two opponents have combined to make 29 three-pointers.
A focus on running the Firestorm off the three-point line Thursday will be key. ACU has made a GSAC-best 40% from there for the season. It attempts 29.6 threes a game.
TMU, on its end, will look to continue feeding the ball inside to Tim Soares. The 6-10 center scored a season-high 32 points on 11-of-12 shooting Saturday in a win over Life Pacific.
In the process, Soares surpassed 1,000 points for his career, the third Mustang to do so this season.
Point guard Hansel Atencia and wing Delewis Johnson were the other two. Atencia leads the GSAC in assists per game at 5.2.
Master’s currently sits in a two-way tie for second place in GSAC standings, one game behind Vanguard.
ACU is fourth.