Antelope Valley was the college basketball team without a college. Its season has come to an end

Antelope Valley coach Jordan Mast talks with his team during a timeout during a first-round game against Huntington (Indiana) in the NAIA men's basketball tournament Friday, March 15, 2024, in Glendale, Ariz. Antelope Valley lost 85-71 to end the season with a 26-5 record. Now they'll head back to California with no college to return to, but with their heads held high after the group persevered through a few uncertain months. (AP Photo/David Brandt)

Antelope Valley coach Jordan Mast talks with his team during a timeout during a first-round game against Huntington (Indiana) in the NAIA men’s basketball tournament Friday, March 15, 2024, in Glendale, Ariz. Antelope Valley lost 85-71 to end the season with a 26-5 record. Now they’ll head back to California with no college to return to, but with their heads held high after the group persevered through a few uncertain months. (AP Photo/David Brandt)

GLENDALE, Ariz. (AP) — Michael Hayes stood in the drizzle outside of the gym about 30 minutes after his final college basketball game, contemplating one of the weirder seasons for any team in recent memory.

The journey for the Antelope Valley Pioneers — college basketball’s team that lost its college a few weeks ago — is over.

“Life is about to start life-ing,” Hayes said with a grin.

The Pioneers fell in the first round of the NAIA men’s national tournament to Huntington (Indiana), losing 85-71 to end their season with a 26-5 record. Now they’ll head back to California with no college to return to, but with their heads held high after the group persevered through a few uncertain months.

“When you pour your life into something and it doesn’t go your way, it hurts, it really hurts,” coach Jordan Mast said in the locker room following the loss. “But in the game of life, which is way more important, you guys won this year.”

The private university in Lancaster, California, announced it was closing on March 6 because of financial difficulties, which potentially could have ended the basketball team’s season early. That happened to some of the school’s other sports.

But Mast started a GoFundMe page back in February — when it was obvious the school’s future was in doubt — which helped raise just shy of $50,000 to help cover expenses for the men’s and women’s teams for the rest of the season.

Mast’s final message to his team in the locker room Friday included a pledge to help the seniors finish their degrees and help the underclassmen find a spot to continue playing college basketball.

“You feel for these guys,” Mast said. “The story catches national attention and it’s a good story. Hey, this team’s playing, but now reality sets in. That’s why I feel for these guys, the reality of all those things I talked about, where are they going to go, how are they going to finish their degree?

“We’ve still got a lot of stuff to figure out.”

Hayes said he’s one semester short of graduation and that Antelope Valley has arranged for him and some other seniors to finish their degree through online courses. The roster is filled with players from as far as Pennsylvania, New York, and even Belize, coming to the small school in California in search of extending their basketball careers a few more years.

“I feel very accomplished,” said Hayes, who had 21 points and 11 rebounds in his final game. “Even though this loss hurts, I feel accomplished. We’ve had a crazy year from Day 1 until now, so to be where we are now is a huge accomplishment. I’m grateful for everyone across the nation who reached out and helped us get to this point.”

Mast has been at Antelope Valley for six seasons. He was a walk-on at Gonzaga in the mid-2000s, playing under veteran coach Mark Few.

“I’m biased, obviously, but what he’s done in a week and a half, raising $49,000, it’s incredible,” Mast’s mother-in-law Kim Basile said at halftime. “He has no job after this. He’s just applying, asking around, trying to find something. He’s so talented.”

Mast said one silver lining to his unemployed status is that the national attention to the team’s plight elevated his predicament, so plenty of programs know that he — and his assistants — are looking for work.

He’ll worry about that in the coming weeks. But on Friday, he was just happy that his team was able to finish its season on the court.

“We felt they had earned the right to compete in the national tournament,” Mast said. “There’s no way our staff wasn’t going to try everything possible to make sure they got to experience what they deserved after the year they had.

“That was our mentality. We didn’t know if we could do this, we really don’t, but we’re going to try. The cool part is the support we got from everybody else to make it happen.”

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AP college basketball: https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-basketball-poll and https://apnews.com/hub/college-basketball

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