Nobody gave The Master's College much of a chance against Concordia, the nation's second-ranked team. Who could blame the naysayers after the Mustangs just squeaked into the GSAC Tournament as the number eight seed?
But, on Thursday evening in Irvine, the Mustangs nearly proved all the doubters wrong before Concordia ripped off a late, 10-0 run, propelling the Eagles to a hard-fought 70-60 victory. The loss ended the Mustangs' season at 13-18 while the Eagles moved on to host Fresno Pacific, a 68-64 winner over Westmont, Saturday evening.
Impressively, the Mustangs stayed with the Eagles for all but the final three minutes. That's when Concordia went to work as Peter Smith sandwiched a three-pointer, snapping a 54-all tie, and another basket around five points by Taylor King to break open a tight game.
The burst, in a 1:51 window, was too much for the Mustangs to overcome and they never got closer than nine points the rest of the way.
That was in stark contrast to the way the first 37 minutes were played. They featured nine ties, seven lead changes, and a lot of nervous Concordia fans.
The Mustangs went to the front early, scoring the game's first four points on baskets by Devin Dyer and Anthony Cammon. But, the Eagles answered with five consecutive points, setting up the back-and-forth pattern that would characterize much of the rest of the game.
No more than four points separated the teams in the first half until the Eagles used a 5-0 spurt to take a 28-23 lead with 3:46 remaining. That unlocked a 23-all tie that was forged by layups from Joey Fuca and Ronnie Dodd.
The Mustangs didn't catch the Eagles before the break but they pulled within 30-27 at intermission when Cammon drilled a pair of free throws with 38 seconds remaining.
The Mustangs were very fortunate to be only three down at halftime after shooting just 27%. Cammon and Dyer led the way with nine and eight points, respectively.
Coming out of the break, the Eagles pushed the advantage to 34-29 but consecutive three-pointers by Leif Karlberg and Cammon vaulted the Mustangs into the lead with 16:58 remaining. Ninety seconds later, Dyer made it eight consecutive points with a layup and the Mustangs were up by three.
But, the highly-touted Eagles responded, tearing off seven consecutive points to move back in front 41-37. Dodd ended the skein with a bucket but the Eagles raced off again and this time it appeared to be decisive. Sparked by a Smith layup, the Eagles reeled off nine straight points in a minute to take a 48-39 advantage.
However, that lasted all of two minutes as the Mustangs went off from behind the arc to knot the game at 48 at the 8:16 mark. Karlberg fueled the run with a triple and Fuca completed it with consecutive three-balls.
Amazingly, the Mustangs were where no one expected them to be: on the cusp of a major upset. But, there was still plenty of time. And, Concordia used it well. The Eagles moved ahead only to watch the Mustangs tie it up again. A Dyer trey with 4:19 remaining knotted the game one more time, this time at 54.
But, that was the last time the Mustangs would be even with the Eagles as Smith and his teammates went to work in the final minutes to pull out the win.
The Mustangs' accuracy from the field improved to just 35% in the second half but they thrived from behind the arc, going 8-17 from long range.
Cammon, who drained four of those three-pointers, finished with a game-high 18 points. Dyer poured in 13 points, Fuca, playing in his final collegiate game, added 11 more, and Karlberg tallied 10 points.