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Faulkner: Lions' players believed

Colleges

March 27, 2014|By Barry Faulkner

For just about every student at Vanguard University, faith is important. But as the NAIA Division I champion Lions men's basketball team showed this season, perhaps no belief is more powerful than faith in one another.

The Lions' players, coaches and support staff returned to Orange County Wednesday night, then took a bus to the Costa Mesa campus, where more than 100 students and supporters welcomed them home with applause, a human tunnel escort into the tiny gym and enough hugs and handshakes to energize even the most weary member of the championship program.

It was an unlikely run through the 32-team tournament in Kansas City, Mo., where the Lions had won only once before in two previous trips (a second-round exit in 1990 and a first-round knockout in 2006). But Coach Rhett Soliday's No. 6-seeded squad, which captured the program's third Golden State Athletic Conference regular-season title and its first GSAC Tournament crown, won five games in seven days to emerge with the ultimate prize.

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A shock, perhaps, to anyone but those on the roster.

"We had summer workouts during open gym and we all could see this was a hell of a team," senior reserve Tino Zaragoza said. "And not just a [GSAC contender], but a team that could go all the way. We had a summer retreat and championship is all we talked about. We had that championship mentality ever since the beginning of the season."

NAIA Tournament MVP Preston Wynne, a senior guard who was also GSAC Player of the Year and a first-team All-American, said the turning point came after a 3-4 record in February that followed a 20-2 start.

"It was almost more of an action than a belief," said Wynne, who scored 42 points in the semifinal win and averaged 26.6 per game during the tournament. "After that rough stretch, it was like 'Enough of this!' We came out in practice and we almost killed each other. We were battling like it was preseason and we didn't know each other. After that, we never lost a game. We just came out and pretty much demolished everybody."

Junior guard Chris Gorman, who had 18 points in the title game and earned second-team All-American recognition, said the team arrived in Kansas City with quiet confidence.

"Everyone [of the players] thought we could do it," Gorman said. "We had the team that was capable of doing it. It was just a matter of whether we were going to show up or not."

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