KANSAS CITY – Keith Mason (JR/Carson, CA)'s Instagram handle is @keith_b_hungry. On Wednesday at the Buffalo Funds-NAIA Division I Men's Basketball National Championships, Mason must have been starving, as the Lions' big man ate up the leaderboard to post game-highs in points (27) and rebounds (13), notching a delicious double-double for Vanguard (28-6) as it devoured Life (Ga.) (19-15) 103-94 to advance in the tournament.
"I was a little sick coming into the game," Mason said. "But, my teammates reassured me that I was going to have an opportunity to have a big game. Our team and coaches had confidence in me early in the contest, and I just tried to keep being aggressive throughout."
Mason's 27 points, five of which came at the free throw line, were a season high for the Carson (Calif.) native. He shot 11-for-15 from the floor en route to what would be his fourth double-double of the year.
Preston Wynne (SR/Wellpinit, WA) also registered a double-double (23 points and 10 rebounds), his first of the season, for The Pride in the affair.
"It means everything that what we have worked for this whole year is starting to pay off," Wynne said. "We have a lot of work to do still, but this win feels great. Sitting as one of the only Vanguard teams to ever win a game here shows you how hard this tournament is. Playing out there tonight was a great experience, and one that I will remember forever. Once that tip went up, however, it was just another day on the court with my family… Wonderful!"
The monumental victory gives the Lions 28 wins in 2014, matching the school record for most wins in the program's history.
Only one other Vanguard men's basketball team has won a first round game at the national tournament. The feat was last accomplished in 1990. Ironically, the inspiring 1989-90 team was inducted into the Vanguard Athletics Hall of Fame on January 31st of 2014.
Vanguard started hot but hit a dry spell in the first half as Life jumped out front 24–15 at the 8:54 mark.
Chris Gorman (JR/Oceanside, CA) hit a pair of free throws to cut the margin to seven, serving as the catalyst for a 28-7 Lions' run which saw Vanguard up 43-31 with 2:48 to play in the period.
Mason, Chris Gorman and DeAngelo Jones (JR/Cheney, WA) scored 13, 9 and 8, respectively, as Vanguard held a 47-39 edge at the break. Nearly every player on the Lions' deep bench contributed in the half.
In the second, Wynne came alive, extending The Pride's lead to 17 points (65-48) before five minutes had ticked off of the game clock.
The Running Eagles, however, cut the gap to two points (71-69) almost as quickly after LaTerrance Carter sank a pair from the charity stripe at 9:50.
In the final ten minutes Life came within three points of the Lions seven different times, but could never quite climb over the hump as Vanguard eventually pulled away to post the 103-94 win.
Gorman finished with 14 points, 5 assists and 3 steals. Jones added 21 points and matched Gorman's assist total on the night.
Life is eliminated from tournament action with the loss. The Running Eagles finish the season at 19-15 overall.
"Today was a great experience for my first time playing in the national tournament," Jones said. "The atmosphere in the arena is unbelievable. Looking forward, we are wanting to control the controllables, meaning, playing hard and playing smart. If we do that, everything else will fall into place."
Vanguard will face Benedictine (Kan.) (22-8) or Westminster (Utah) (19-12) in the second round. The game is scheduled for 4:15 pm PST on Friday.