COSTA MESA — There is usually a soft underbelly somewhere in any season debut. But, for the most part, the Vanguard University men's basketball team unveiled six-pack abs Thursday night.
The Lions, coming off a 15-15 campaign hampered by myriad injuries, created 28 turnovers and shot 50.8% from the field to handle nonconference visitor Menlo, 81-59.
The victory put a smile on third-year coach Rhett Soliday's face, but also filled his clipboard with things upon which his team will need to improve.
"The first thing you want to do is identify all the things you want to get better at," said Soliday, whose team used a 9-0 run near the end of the first half to take control, and kept widening the margin after intermission. "We're trying to play a style that speeds people up a little bit, kind of a dictating style defensively. When it looks good, it looks good, and when you break down, you give up layups."
But the Lions took much more than they gave in almost every category, as senior forward Ennis Whatley Jr. asserted himself inside, while junior transfer Preston Wynne led a strong perimeter contingent to help the hosts win their opener for the second straight season.
Whatley, who missed most of last season with a broken foot, made nine of 13 field-goal attempts on his way to 20 points. He also chipped in five rebounds and four steals.
Wynne, a former Spokane Community College star playing his first game at Vanguard, also scored 20, while pacing the winners with six rebounds, five assists and committing only one turnover in 33 minutes.
Sophomore point guard Chris Gorman, who played last season at Palomar Community College, had 11 of his 13 points in the second half and led the way with five steals.
"Whatley was really aggressive with the ball, which is what he does," Soliday said of the 6-foot-5, 215-pounder who, he says, has a playing style similar to Charles Barkley. "When he gets going, it opens up the floor for the other guys."
The other guys — Wynne, Gorman and senior Taylor Kelly (11 points on three-of-five shooting from three-point range) — took advantage.
"I don't think we executed great, but I still think our guards had good poise with the ball," Soliday said. "For the most part, they made good decisions."
And while the relentlessly pressure and overplaying helped create the flurry of turnovers, while limiting the Oaks to just nine-of-27 shooting from the field in the opening 20 minutes, it also led to a parade of layins for Menlo, which was 7-22 last season.
"There were a couple mishaps, but you're always going to get that the first game of the season, Whatley said. "But I like that we played hard and we stayed together. We're a very close group and we have some talent. It was nice to see our hard work show up on the scoreboard."
Soliday said the opening win could be a gift that keeps giving.
"You expect to see [the defensive breakdowns] a little bit early," Soliday said. "So, it's not surprising, but it's still as frustrating as ever. Now, we can use the film and really start to teach, using video and showing guys where they can get better."
Vanguard trailed, 6-2, nearly three minutes in, but used a 12-0 spurt to take and eight-point lead. A three-pointer pulled the Oaks within 23-21 with 4:15 left in the first half, before three layups and three free throws put the hosts up, 32-21. The Lions made 19 of 33 field-goal attempts in the final 20 minutes and finished with 15 turnovers and only 11 fouls.
Senior guard ChaRunn Jones, Menlo's top returner having averaged 16 points per game last season, was zero for six in the first half and finished two for eight from the field with just six points.
Vanguard 81, Menlo 59
Menlo – Dunbar 4, Bowman 15, Barnes 16, Jones 6, Monroy 3, Miller 7, Kipiani 4, Abittan 2, Rai 2.
3-pt. goals – Jones 2, Barnes 2, Monroy 1, Miller 1.
Vanguard – Whatley 20 Chuang 0, Wynne 20, Gorman 13, Kelly 11, Hann 4, Diandy 4, Richter 4, Smith 3, Larkins 2.
3-pt. goals – Wynne 3, Kelly 3, Gorman 1.
Halftime – VU, 32-23.