GCU women taking hoops program to ‘The Next Level’

According to Trent May, it’s 989.3 miles from the Grand Canyon University campus in west Phoenix to the campus of St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, Texas.

And the head coach of the GCU women’s basketball program reminds his players of that geographic fact every day.  That’s their motivation for this season.

St. Mary’s is where the NCAA Division II finals will be played this year.  And that’s the targeted destination for his nationally-ranked Antelopes this season.

The ‘Lopes are 11-3 heading into January and ranked No. 15 in the nation.  But they were actually higher in the polls to start the season, when they entered play with a No. 13 pre-season ranking and predictions to finish atop the Pacific West Conference.

They dropped a couple of notches after stumbling out of the starting blocks by losing two of their first three games.  However, it should be noted that one of those losses was to the No. 1 ranked D-II team in the country, Ashland University, in the Disney Classic…and the one win was over No. 8 UC San Diego.

But the team was able to call on its depth of talent and experience to pick itself up and go on a run of nine straight wins before losing in overtime to No. 20 Western Washington in the South Point Holiday Hoops Classic in Las Vegas two weeks ago.  This team returned all five starters from last year.

They took out their frustration over that loss with an 86-38 dismantling of Northern New Mexico yesterday at home.  The 48-point margin was the largest of the season and can be directly attributed to an aggressive defensive effort that forced 33 turnovers, which the ‘Lopes converted into 25 points.

On the offensive end of the floor, GCU had four players in double figures, led by Judy Jones who posted 16 points and 11 rebounds.  It marked the ninth straight double-double for the junior from San Antonio, and the 10th straight game that she has provided double-digit scoring.  She leads the team with 17 points and 10 rebounds a game.

Maylinn Smith added 13 points, and Justine Johnson and Deanna Daniels each had 11.  All three have local ties.  Smith is a junior guard/forward from Mesquite High School in Gilbert, Johnson is a junior guard from Gilbert High School, and Daniels is a junior forward from Nevada that came to the program through Pima Community College in Tucson.

Smith is the reigning PacWest Conference Player of the Year and was also named the Pre-season Player of the Year.

You may have noticed…not a senior in this group.  Coach May is set for next year again – and well on his way to accomplishing the goals he has laid out for the future of the program.

“We want to be in the top 10 (nationally) and to host and win our regional,” the sixth-year head coach said when the season was just starting.  “That’s the next level.”

And “The Next Level” has become the team motto for this season, something he prepares each year because he feels it gives each team an identity that is all their own.

The idea seems to be working.  The ‘Lopes enjoyed the best season in school history in 2010-11 when they finished the year as the No. 9 team in the country and entered this season following 30 consecutive weeks ranked in the nation’s top 20.

Last year’s conference championship was the team’s fifth in the six years since they joined the conference, and they received 11 of the 14 possible votes projecting them to finish in first place again this year.

“Conference championships are valuable but we want to be on the national stage,” May points out.

GCU has made six post-season appearances through the years, five of those in the NCAA tournament where the ‘Lopes have twice advanced past the first round.  In 2011 they made it to the Sweet Sixteen.

And this year could find them back in that rarefied air of March Madness.

May found a way to remind the players of that goal when he passed out t-shirts when the season began with “989.3” imprinted on them.

After 10 wins in the last 11 games, that road to San Antonio keeps getting shorter.

(Photo: GCU Athletics/ Darryl Webb)