Rugged schedule helps GCU win PacWest hoops opener

There are different philosophies in college sports regarding the early non-conference schedule.

Coaches either prefer to pack the early games with easy wins, padding their records and building some early confidence.  Or they want to put some serious competition on the road to conference play, to better prepare their teams for the games that really count.

Russ Pennell prefers the latter, and that approach appears to be paying off for his Grand Canyon University men’s basketball team.

The Antelopes came into their Pacific West Conference schedule with a less-than-impressive 5-5 record.  But they opened against Utah, a Divison I team; had taken on nationally-ranked Central Washington; and beat St. Cloud State, a Final Four team last year.

The tough scheduling paid off with a huge win over Dixie State in its opener, which the Lopes had to play in St. George, Utah.  The Phoenix college had tried six times to beat the defending conference co-champions on their floor, but this was the first win at Burns Arena.

And they did in dramatic fashion.

The Lopes lead the league in 3-point shooting percentage (36.8), and they went to that weapon to put the finishing touch on the 71-68 victory.

It was Steven Morin, the sophomore guard from Saguaro High School in Scottsdale, that drained the trey with just five seconds left on the clock.  Dixie’s final desperation shot failed, and the Lopes are off to a 1-0 conference start – and a good idea of how they will handle the challenges that will come the rest of the way.

Dixie State, which went into the game leading the conference in field-goal defense, led by as many as five points with less than 12 minutes to go.  The Lopes had led by nine, 35-26, at the half, so they had to rebound from the Red Storm surge.

Another good sign for Pennell, who is trying to build a national-calibre program at Grand Canyon.

Pennell took over at GCU last year after eight years as an assistant coach at Arizona State and then a one-year gig at University of Arizona when he took over as interim coach following Lute Olson’s retirement.  He guided the Cats to a 21-14 record and a trip to the Sweet 16 in the NCAA tournament, but wasn’t given the permanent title.

The Lopes were a .500 team in his first year, but built some serious momentum for this season by winning 10 of their final 13 games.

Pennell hit the recruiting trail and begin adding junior college transfers and building a strong recruiting class.

Morin is a good example of mining the local high school market.  The 6’5″ guard averaged over 18 points a game in his senior year at Saguaro HS and had eight games of 20 points or better.

In the opener against Dixie, he had nine points, all from behind the arc, to boost the effort.  But it was senior forward Rony Tchatchoua who came off the bench to give the Lopes the needed firepower, leading the squad with 17 points.

Another local product, Nick Witherill, added 14 points, including 3-of-6 from behind the arc.  The 6’2″ junior from Highland High School in Gilbert, is one of three on the squad to hit the 20-point mark this season; he scored 22 points in a win over MSU-Billings in mid-December.

As a team, GCU drained 9-of-16 from three-point range and shot 52 percent from the field in the opener.

The Lopes will have a little time off before their next outing, a road game at Notre Dame de Namur on Jan. 18.