KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The Vanguard University Lions may not be who we thought they were, but if one wants to crown Coach Rhett Soliday's men's basketball players, one can now officially crown them.
The Lions defeated Emmanuel College of Georgia, 70-65, in the championship game of the NAIA Division I Tournament on Tuesday at Municipal Auditorium.
Vanguard's ninth straight win gave the program its first national championship and matched the 2008 women's basketball title as only the second national crown in the history of the Costa Mesa-based school.
The Lions (32-6) led for all but 85 seconds to forge their fifth win in seven days in Kansas City, where the program had been just 1-2 in two previous appearances (1990 and 2006). Its only tournament win prior to this season was in the first round in 1990.
But after winning the program's third Golden State Athletic Conference title, its first since 1990, then collecting its first GSAC Tournament crown, Soliday's squad obviously wasn't done.
The No. 6-seeded Lions' tournament run included wins over Life University of Georgia (103-94 on Wednesday), Benedictine of Kansas (81-70 on Friday), defending-champion Georgetown of Kentucky (93-85 in Saturday's quarterfinals) and St. Gregory's of Oklahoma (108-88 in Monday's semifinal).
Senior guard Preston Wynne, who had 42 points in the semifinal win, led Vanguard with 20 points in the final to earn tournament MVP honors. Wynne, the GSAC Player of the Year, averaged 26.6 points per game in the tournament and his 133 points were unmatched. He scored at least 20 points for the seventh straight game.
Junior guard Chris Gorman, who scored 13 of his 18 points in the first half Tuesday, was named to the all-tournament team.
Junior Keith Mason, who averaged nearly a double-double in the tournament (10.6 points and nine rebounds per contest), had 10 points and 13 rebounds for the winners.
Freshman reserve Zach Allmon chipped in 11 rebounds and six points, while senior Noah Larkins also came off the bench to produce eight points.
"It feels amazing," Soliday, a former UC Irvine assistant who was an assistant coach at Concordia of Irvine when the Eagles won the 2003 NAIA national title, told reporters afterward. "We just praise God. We said before this game, win or lose, that we were going to give [God] the glory, because he made this a special season. This game doesn't define our season and it doesn't define Emmanuel's [33-4] season. We just happened to be on the winning end tonight."
The championship capped a monumental rise for Vanguard, which was 17-12 last season to produce its first winning record in five seasons. Soliday, named GSAC and National Coach of the Year in his fourth season, guided the team to a 20-2 start. It went 3-4 in a 20-day stretch in February, before beginning its current winning streak on March 1.
Vanguard was 15-15 in Soliday's second season, and had only two winning seasons in the prior 13 campaigns. In those 13 years, the program's average record was 11-19 and it failed to record double-digit wins six times.
"We knew that we had a special group and that we had the toughness to do something like this from Day 1," Soliday later said by phone. "But you just don't imagine something like this, especially when we hadn't been to the national tournament [since 2006]. Our No. 1 goal was to get to the national tournament. This is beyond our expectations."
The Lions shot just 31% from the field (22 for 71) against No. 8-seeded Emmanuel, which wasn't much better at 34.4%.
Vanguard made just five of 22 three-point attempts (22.7%), but sank 21 of 27 foul shots. It won the rebounding battle, 49-47, and committed just eight turnovers, half as many as Emmanuel.
Vanguard posted a 15-4 edge in points off turnovers and a 17-9 cushion in second-chance points.
Vanguard led, 29-25, at halftime and was up by as many as nine in the opening period after Emmanuel posted its lone advantage at 7-6 with 14:54 left before intermission.
Emmanuel closed to within 29-28 just 26 seconds into the second half on a three-pointer by Luke Miller, but a 7-0 run helped Vanguard reestablish control and it led by as many as 10 in the second half.
Emmanuel twice pared the deficit to two points, the final time with 3:39 left. But Vanguard finished the job.
Junior Selle Hann (five points), junior starting guard DeAngelo Jones (one point) and senior starting forward Swing Chuang also contributed in the final, as did senior Tino Zaragoza (two points) and sophomore Myles Smith.
Michael Stanley, a junior guard, led Emmanuel with 19 points and 13 rebounds to earn all-tournament recognition.
Soliday said the team is scheduled to arrive at John Wayne Airport at 9 p.m. on Wednesday and there will likely be a celebration of some kind at The Pit, the school's gymnasium, as soon as they return to the campus.
— From staff reportsCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun