Preston Wynne spent six years between high school and junior college. He did construction work for a while, cared for his two children, even taught junior high basketball on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Washington.
As he climbed up a ladder inside Municipal Auditorium on Tuesday night, and gently cut down his piece of the net, he couldn't help but think about how far he'd come.
Wynne had just scored 20 points to lead No. 6 seed Vanguard of California to a 70-65 victory over No. 8 seed Emmanuel of Georgia on Tuesday night in the NAIA national championship game.
"I can't believe this," he said, smiling. "I don't know what to say."
The senior guard, who scored 42 points in a semifinal win over St. Gregory's of Oklahoma, was chosen the tournament's most valuable player. And while he high-fived his teammates and posed for pictures, nobody could convince him that he wasn't on basketball's biggest stage.
"The thing about Preston, there's guys out there like him with a similar story," Vanguard coach Rhett Soliday said, "but there's not many with that kind of character and determination."
Chris Gorman added 18 points, and Keith Mason finished with 10 points and 13 rebounds for Vanguard (32-6), a school of about 1,500 students located in Costa Mesa, Calif.
Michael Stanley had 19 points and 13 rebounds for Emmanuel (33-4), which had never won an NAIA tournament game in three previous trips. Patrick McCrary added 10 points and nine rebounds.
"Credit them. They're a good team," Emmanuel coach T.J. Rosene said. "I'm proud of my guys."
Emmanuel, located in Franklin Springs, Ga., jumped ahead early, but Wynne eventually knocked down a 3-pointer with about 12 minutes left in the first half to jumpstart Vanguard's offense.
Even when Wynne took a seat with two fouls later in the half, the Golden State Athletic Conference school built on their lead without their top scorer. Gorman drove baseline and got a floater to go that made it 29-21 with a couple minutes left before the break.
"We just always try to be aggressive," Gorman said.
Emmanuel scored six straight points spanning halftime to nip into the lead, and after Vanguard had stretched it back to 45-35 midway through the second half, the tiny school from the Southern States Athletic Conference went on a 9-2 charge to make things interesting.
Every time that Emmanuel got close, though, Vanguard answered the call.
Stanley's 3-pointer with just over 20 seconds left allowed Emmanuel to close within 67-62, but it took half the remaining time to get a foul as Vanguard played keep-away. Noel Larkins was finally fouled and made two free throws, and Stanley's 3 at the other end bounced off the rim.
Mason pulled down the rebound and put the game away from the foul line.
When the final buzzer sounded, the Vanguard players spilled off their bench and met at midcourt, where they jumped up in joyous celebration. Their small collection of fans joined in, celebrating the school's first national championship.
"We were just able to make a few more plays," Soliday said. "Our guys believed from Day 1. They have a strong faith in each other. And this may not be a big dream to a lot of people, but it's a huge dream to us."