Dan Waldeck and his Lady Mustangs knew they were on their way to the GSAC Tournament a few weeks ago but after three consecutive losses, the third-year head coach needed something big from his squad to give it renewed confidence as the postseason neared.
He got it Saturday evening in Costa Mesa when Erica Inge scored on a layup with four seconds remaining, rallying The Master's College past No. 16 Vanguard 71-70 in the final regular-season game for both clubs.
Not only did the victory snap that losing skid, it also averted the first losing conference record for the Mustangs (17-12, 10-10) since they joined the GSAC in 2001. However, since Concordia, which beat TMC twice during the year, defeated Westmont earlier in the evening to finish with the same conference record, the Mustangs wound up seventh in the GSAC and will open tournament play on Wednesday at second-seeded California Baptist.
Inge's heroics rescued the Mustangs who led at halftime 36-31 but trailed most of the second half, including a 64-59 deficit with just over five minutes remaining. That's when the senior All-American took over, scoring 10 of the Mustangs' final 12 points to deliver the victory.
She started with consecutive layups to chop the Lion lead to one point. Vanguard countered with a three-pointer for a 67-63 lead but when Inge was fouled in the act of the shooting and the Lion bench was hit with a technical foul, the diminutive guard buried four straight free throws to knot the game at 67 with 3:13 remaining.
A free throw by Vanguard's Molly Pfohl with 2:55 left put the Lions up by one but TMC's Ella Joines sank a jumper 37 seconds later to reclaim the lead for the Mustangs. Neither team put up any points on their next possessions but when Sarah Boyd converted a layup at the 1:21 mark, the Lions were back up one (70-69).
Again, both squads failed to score on each of their next possessions and that set up the Mustangs and Inge with 23 seconds left to play. She took it from there and the Mustangs snapped a nine-game losing streak against the Lions.
After taking that five-point lead to the break, the Mustangs fell victim to a 6-0 Vanguard run in the first minute of the second period but two Lena Rivera free throws reclaimed the lead. That started a back-and-forth pattern over the next nine minutes when no more than four points separated the clubs.
But, following a pair of Lauren Labat free throws that drew the Mustangs to within two (54-52) with just over 10 minutes left, the Lions ripped off six straight points to grab an eight-point lead and then went up by a game-high nine points (62-53) at the 6:53 mark.
From that point on, the Mustangs began a methodical march to get back into the game with Inge triggering the effort.
In the first half, the squads see-sawed through the initial eight minutes of play until the Lions used a 10-2 burst to forge a 24-17 lead with 8:52 left in the half. But, just when it looked like the Lions were in total command, the Mustangs ran off 14 straight points, a jaw-dropping run fueled by none other than Inge. Her layup at the 8:37 mark got things going and over five minutes later (3:20 mark) her three-pointer capped it off.
In between, junior post Theresa Brown tossed in five points while Joines and Zoe Scott had two apiece. The lead grew to as many as 10 points (36-26) on a Joines' three-pointer with 1:38 remaining before the Lions halved the deficit with five straight points before intermission.
In her final regular-season game, Inge was magnificent. She scored a game-high 23 points, grabbed six rebounds, and handed out five assists. Joines added 13 points, Scott had 10 more, and Brown totaled nine points to go along with a game-high 12 rebounds.
Just as they did against Vanguard, the Mustangs face a formidable opponent in California Baptist in Wednesday's first-round game. The sixth-ranked Lancers, who finished second in the GSAC, beat the Mustangs twice during the regular season.