COSTA MESA — All second-year Vanguard University men's basketball coach Rhett Soliday wanted for Christmas was a little confidence.
The Lions' 82-78 nonconference victory over visiting La Sierra on Friday helped solidify that request, though there was more sobering news on the injury front for a program that is still trying to gain more substantial footing in the competitive Golden State Athletic Conference.
Vanguard (7-4) ended the game with a 16-4 run to turn away the Golden Eagles (0-10), who had five turnovers and just two field goals during the final 4:50 to miss an opportunity to apply a little salve to their own sickly self-esteem.
Vanguard senior guard Christopher Kupets made six straight foul shots in the final 40 seconds to preserve a win in a game that featured nine ties and four lead changes.
Senior guards Christopher Raybon and Chris Pynch both had 19 points to pace five Lions in double-figures, allowing Vanguard to surpass its victory total from the 2010-11 campaign in which it finished 6-22.
"The nature of this group so far this season has been that we've lacked a little urgency, until we're playing from behind," said Soliday, whose squad was 2-8 before Christmas last season. "We get down then all of a sudden, we go 'Oh, no.' The reality is, we're not good enough to play that way. Sometimes we like to think we are, but we're not. We've got to be solid for 40 minutes. If we want to be competitive in the GSAC, we're going to have to fix that."
Soliday pointed to free throws — VU made 20 of 26, while La Sierra netted 11 of 15 — and an impressive 18 assists to just 10 turnovers as the big reasons his team was able to prevail.
Senior forward Cameron Nettles (12 points), Kupets (11) and junior guard Taylor Kelly (10) added to a balanced scoring component that also included senior Billy Thompson (nine points and a team-high nine rebounds).
Nettles and Thompson combined for half of the Lions' 32 rebounds, but they were not enough to counter a big inside advantage for La Sierra.
The Golden Eagles had 42 rebounds and dominated with 44 points in the paint, to Vanguard's 26.
"Our top three bigs are out right now," said Soliday, who got news after the game that 6-foot-6 freshman Jordan Diandy broke a bone in his right-lower leg by falling awkwardly while being fouled on a shot in the opening moments against La Sierra.
Ennis Whatley, a 6-5 junior, is out with a broken foot and 6-8 senior Cameron Khoury is out with an academic issue that arose at the end of the fall semester.
Further, Thompson played with a severely sprained right (shooting) wrist that helped him miss seven of his 11 field-goal attempts and both of his free throws, his team's only two misses on 15 second-half foul shots.
Kupets had seven assists and three steals, while Raybon added five assists.
Three Raybon free throws created a 74-74 deadlock with 3:17 left and, after a La Sierra layup gave the Golden Eagles their final lead with 1:38 remaining, Raybon drained a pull-up jumper from just inside the free-throw line with 1:19 left.
After Nettles rebounded a La Sierra miss, Kupets was fouled in the double bonus and converted both foul shots to put Vanguard on top for good, 78-76, with 40 seconds to play.
"We've had some great wins and we've had some tough losses [including a two-point exhibition setback at UC Irvine on Saturday]," Soliday said. "But I think the program has taken a step [forward from last season]. I think we deserve a little bit of confidence going into league play after Christmas. We've done enough to go into games believing that we have a chance to win. Last year, we'd always fight, but we couldn't always go into those games saying that we feel like we deserve success."
Vanguard returns to action Dec. 27 with another exhibition at Loyola Marymount, before playing host to Gordon College, coached by Tod Murphy, a Soliday colleague when the two were assistants at UCI, on Dec. 29.
The Lions finish out 2011 at home on Dec. 30 against Vancouver Island University, before returning to GSAC play at home on Jan. 3 against Westmont.
Vanguard 82, La Sierra 78
LS – Zonker 20, Woods 6, Penn 16, Shaw 11, Robbins 3, Kiefer 9, Williams 8, Snyder 5.
3-pt. goals – Kiefer 3, Shaw 1, Snyder 1.
Fouled out – Robbins.
Technicals – None.
VU – Nettles 12, Diandy 0, Pynch 19, Kupets 11, Kelly, 10, Raybon 19, Thompson 9, Hann 2.
3-pt. goals – Pynch 4, Kelly 2, Kupets 1, Thompson 1.
Fouled out – None.
Halftime – 43-37, VU.