Vanguard (Calif.) University guard Preston Wynne spent the six longest years of his life out of basketball.
He worked construction on the Spokane Tribe’s reservation, took care of his two young children as well as his mother, who had multiple sclerosis. And he kept shooting jumpers in a junior high gymnasium.
All those shots paid off Tuesday night as Wynne, on an off night, led the sixth-seeded Lions to a 70-65 victory over eighth-seeded Emmanuel (Ga.) College in the championship game of the NAIA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament at Municipal Auditorium.
“It was a very long wait,” Wynne said of the six years between high school and junior college. “I missed competitive basketball so much. One of my buddies back home started playing college ball, and he said, ‘There’s no better feeling than college basketball. You have to give it a try.’ I just came, and now I’m here.
“I can’t fathom that we just won. It’s mind-blowing.”
Wynne, a 26-year-old senior, is the first American Indian to be selected tournament MVP after scoring 20 points, giving him 133 points — a 26.6 average for five games.
That performance was a far cry from his 42-point outburst on Monday in the semifinals when Wynne made 14 of 19 from the field. On Tuesday, Wynne missed his first seven shots from the field and made just seven of 24 for the night.
But he did what all good shooters do. He kept shooting.
“I shot exactly the same shots I shot (Monday) night, but they just weren’t hitting today,” Wynne said. “I kept shooting. I have 100 percent confidence that every one of my shots is going to go in. Sometimes they fall; sometimes they don’t.”
The biggest shot to fall came with 3:38 to play, and Vanguard clinging to a 53-51 lead. Wynne hit a baseline jumper and was fouled by Luke Miller. Wynne knocked down the free throw for a 56-51 lead, and after an Emmanuel turnover, Vanguard point guard Chris Gorman made two free throws.
The Lions, 32-6, were on their way to the first NAIA tournament championship in school history.
“They were catching me with hand checks the whole game,” Wynne said of the three-point play, “and I don’t complain about them, I have my coaches take care of that. So the coach said, ‘Watch the hand check,’ and I kept shooting the same shots, and (Miller) hit me on the wrist again, and the shot went in.”
Even though the shots weren’t falling, Vanguard coach Rhett Soliday and Wynne’s teammates never give up on him.
“He’s done it all year,” Soliday said of Wynne, the Golden State Athletic Conference Player of the Year and two-time scoring leader.
“He’s been through some incredible things in his life. Our championship is a product of his championship character.”
Neither team shot well in their fifth game in seven nights. Vanguard made just 22 of 71 from the field (31 percent), and Emmanuel, 33-4, made just 22 of 64 (34 percent). Guard Michael Stanley, much like Wynne, struggled, making only six of 18 shots and scoring 19 points, the only game in the tournament in which he was held to fewer than 20.
When Emmanuel, which had won 25 of 26, cut its deficit to two, coach TJ Rosene, sensed his team could overtake Vanguard. And then Wynne converted the three-point play.
“I thought we had a chance right there,” Rosene said. “I thought we had them on the ropes. They were breathing a little bit. A big player made a big-time play. Credit to him.”