COSTA MESA — With another game fewer than 24 hours away, the Vanguard University men's basketball coaching staff could take little time to mull over Friday's 76-62 loss to streaking Warner Pacific in the opener of its Thanksgiving tournament.
But while it wouldn't require much time or effort to identify the root of the Lions' struggles against the Portland-based Knights, any discussion about the contest would also be sure to include some positives.
Vanguard starting forwards Ennis Whatley Jr. and Swing Chuang were both sidelined by injuries, while junior scoring leader Preston Wynne's performance was virtually eradicated due to a bout with the flu.
However, Vanguard Coach Rhett Soliday was eager to praise the spark provided by reserve guards Noah Larkins and Myles Smith. Larkins, a junior transfer from Irvine Valley Community College, scored 13 points in 20 minutes, including 10 points during a 13-2 run that helped the hosts trim what once was a 16-point deficit to 49-45 with 12:31 left.
Smith, a freshman out of Mayfair High in Lakewood, collected eight assists to go with four rebounds, two points and one steal in 21 minutes.
But while Larkins connected on three of four three-point tries, as well as five of eight field-goal attempts, the rest of the team was a combined 20 for 61 from the field (32.8%), including six for 30 from three-point range (20%).
"He did a great job," Soliday said of Smith, who had nine assists in his first seven games. "He's getting more and more confidence."
Soliday said Larkins, who averaged 4.3 points in the first seven games, brought toughness, grit and leadership to the Lions (5-3), who were lacking production and intangibles typically provided by Whatley.
Whatley, out indefinitely after taking a knee to his knee that has produced swelling in the joint capsule, Soliday said, averaged 18.3 points and nine rebounds in four games this season. He had 20 points and 18 rebounds in the Lions' 97-92 overtime upset of then-No. 4-ranked Robert Morris of Illinois on Nov. 10.
Chuang, who sprained his foot early in the Nov. 16 loss to Cal State San Marcos and is also out indefinitely, averages 2.8 points and 3.4 rebounds.
Wynne, who came in averaging a team-best 21.4 points, was just one for nine from the field, including one for six from three-point range to produce three points in 28 minutes. He did contribute five assists, four rebounds, three blocked shots and two steals.
"Even if we were at full strength, Warner Pacific [which won its sixth straight to improve to 6-2] is a battle," Soliday said. "But when Whatley is out, we miss more than his production. He brings a big-time sense of confidence to our group, because he is fearless. We are missing his presence, which gives us a different level of toughness."
Soliday said Wynne was "sick as a dog" before the game, but talked his way into the starting lineup and more minutes than he likely should have garnered.
"Sometimes, when a guy like that says he is good to go, he's feeling a lot worse than he lets on," Soliday said. "I think that was the case today. I probably shouldn't have played him at all."
Vanguard senior Taylor Kelly produced 18 points and six rebounds and was eight of 20 from the field. But he made just two of 10 three-point tries.
Junior guard Chris Gorman was two for eight from threedom, and four for 15 from the field to finish with 11 points. He had four assists, three rebounds and two steals.
Vanguard finished the first half with a 7-1 run, but allowed the first six points after intermission, before posting its aforementioned surge.
After Vanguard pulled within four, however, Warner Pacific used a 10-2 run to reestablish command.
Vanguard had 18 fewer points in the paint than Warner Pacific, which committed 14 turnovers, two more than the Lions. The visitors' ability to convert easy baskets helped them shoot 54.4% from the field (31 for 57).
Vanguard attempted just five free throws (making three), as the Knights were whistled for just seven of the game's 24 fouls.