A win over a nationally-ranked opponent is just what Russ Pennell needed for his men’s basketball program at Grand Canyon University.
The Antelopes’ 71-65 win Saturday over No. 9 St. Cloud State (Div. II) is significant since the Huskies were a Final Four team last year and are ranked in the top 10 nationally in three different pre-season polls. The No. 9 ranking is from the USA Today/ESPN poll, but the Division II Bulletin has St. Cloud ranked as high as No. 3.
The win moves Pennell just one step closer to the mission he was given when he took over the GCU program last season.
Not long ago, GCU officials decided that the quickest way to get national visibility for the school was to build a successful basketball program. So they decided to hire a coach who had been there before and had success at that level.
Pennell fit the bill. And he just happened to be available. The year before, he took the University of Arizona deep into the national tournament in his one, and only, year at the helm of that elite program – but didn’t get invited back as the program’s head coach.
He signed on at Arizona in 2008 as an assistant coach and then took over on an interim basis after Lute Olson’s unexpected departure from the program he built. He won 21 games and got the Cats all the way to the Sweet 16 at the NCAA Tournament.
When he wasn’t asked to become the permanent head coach, he began poring through other offers, including some from D-I schools. But he took Grand Canyon up on its offer and set about building a national-caliber program in anticipation of a jump to Division I-A status in a few years.
The Lopes were a .500 team last year, but they won 10 of their last 13 games, and Pennell is capitalizing on that momentum.
And he’s doing it with a cupboard full of local talent. Eleven of the 15-man roster have come out of Arizona high schools.
A couple of those players were instrumental in the Lopes’ two victories in last weekend’s Tip-Off Classic at GCU (2-1). Sophomore guard, Brad Carroll, led all GCU scorers with 14 points in the win over St. Cloud State, and freshman Chris Johnson had 13 points in the tourney opener, a 72-54 win over Minnesota-Duluth. Junior guard, Fletcher Wynn, had a game-high 14 points in the Minnesota-Duluth game.
Carroll is from Corona del Sol HS in Tempe, where he was a Second Team All-State selection. Johnson is a 6’7″ guard/forward who came up through Highland HS in Gilbert, averaging 12 points and eight rebounds for a team that was ranked No. 1 in the state in 5A-I.
In the opener against Minnesota, the Lopes took a 43-22 halftime lead and out-rebounded their opponents 45-28, led by Gaby Ngoundjo‘s seven boards. But they had to come from behind for the victory in the finale, as St. Cloud State jumped out to a 10-0 lead. The lead see-sawed throughout, until the Lopes were able to get the lead with just under a minute left and then hold on to it by sinking eight of their last 10 free throws.
“These are the types of games you build on,” said Pennell. “We know what we’re capable of when adversity hits.”
And it’s sure to come back at them again as the season progresses. But it won’t be anything new for the head coach.
He’s been down that adversity road before in Tucson.
(Photo: GCU Athletics/Tim Koors)