Russ Pennell returns to NCAA tourney…with GCU ‘Lopes

The Grand Canyon University basketball teams have packed their bags and are heading off in opposite directions.  The men are traveling to Washington and the women to San Diego.

But both teams are looking for the same thing…a national championship.

The women earned a third seed in the NCAA Division II National Championship by posting a 23-3 record and will play at UC-San Diego, the host team by virtue of their No. 1 seed.  They face an old nemesis in Friday’s first-round game, sixth-seeded Cal Poly Pomona.  The Broncos (19-8) knocked GCU out of the tournament last year in the West Region finals.

The men will enter the tourney as the eighth seed in the West Region and will travel to Bellingham, Wash., to take on the host team, Western Washington University.

Nothing like a baptism of fire.  Western Washington is 25-5 and the No. 1 seed in the tournament.

But the ‘Lopes (19-7) are on a roll, coming off nine wins in a row and feeling the momentum that comes with beating your final regular-season opponent on a shot at the buzzer.

A couple of local recruits combined to nip Dixie State with a three-point prayer with 1.5 seconds left in the season finale.  Braylon Pickrel, a junior forward from Mesa’s Red Mountain High School, took an inbound pass from Nick Witherill, the senior guard from Gilbert’s Highland High, and drained the trey from deep in the corner.

The win helped the Antelopes earn an invitation to the Big Dance, and gave their coach, Russ Pennell, a return to the big stage – albeit not as grand as he once enjoyed.

Pennell took over the GCU program for the 2009-10 season after guiding the University of Arizona Wildcats to a Sweet Sixteen finish the year before.  He spent just one season at the helm of the tradition-rich Pac-12 program, stepping into the position when Lute Olson suddenly retired.

He wasn’t asked to take over the program on a permanent basis, so he looked at other options, and then chose the small, private D-II college in west Phoenix.  It was a big hire for GCU, which wanted to find a coach that could build a  basketball program that would help it become a nationally-recognized college.

After just three years, it looks like he’s well on his way.

“I couldn’t be more proud of our team,” said Pennell after finding out his ‘Lopes got a berth in the tournament.  “We are one of 64 that have a chance to win a national championship, something you can’t do unless you get in.  We are in.  And that’s exciting.”

And, on the women’s side, Trent May has been working on the same thing as head coach for five years and has already seen the fruits of his labor.  Last year’s women’s team enjoyed the best season in school history, finishing the year 29-3 and ranked No. 9 in the country.

Three times he has been named PacWest Coach of the Year and broke the school record for career victories during the 2009-10 season.

Despite losing Samantha Murphy, the school’s all-time leading scorer, to graduation at the end of the season, May has put together another squad that could go deep into the post-season.  They wrap the regular season with a No. 13 national ranking.

A 71-54 win over Dixie State put an exclamation mark on this season, beating the Red Storm in the final game to win the Pacific West Conference title outright – the Lopes’ fifth in the last six years.

It was a balanced attack that led to the Dixie State win, as the ‘Lopes got double-digit scoring from four different players.  Joslynn Frazier led the way with 16 points, while Maylinn Smith and Petrolina Chilaka each added 11, and Angelina Dennison had 10 points.

Smith is a sophomore guard/forward out of Mesquite High School in Mesa and was there last year when Cal Poly Pomona dropped her team from the tournament.

“I know a lot of the girls that weren’t there last year won’t understand why playing Pomona is so great, like the returners do,” Smith explains.  “But they will understand once we get there.

“It is going to be awesome.”

(Photo: GCU Athletics/ Jak Keyser)