Defending its new arena: GCU hoops hard to beat at home

Grand Canyon University made a major commitment when it decided to build a state-of-the art facility for its basketball teams.  But it appears to be money well spent… at least as far as Russ Pennell is concerned.

The 5,000-seat arena broke ground in June of 2010 and opened for its first sporting event, an exhibition game with the ASU men’s basketball team, in the fall of 2011.  Since then, the Antelopes’ men’s team has played 29 games in its new home – and won 28 of them.

Construction of the new arena was the second step in an aggressive marketing plan at the school that is being driven by its sports programs.  The facility, which is also used for wrestling and volleyball, is the crown jewel of a $60 million expansion program.

Pennell was the first step for the men’s basketball program, a high-profile coaching hire in 2009, right after he had taken the University of Arizona to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament as the Wildcats’ interim coach.

He has been laying the groundwork for the school’s ascent from Division II to Division I, a move announced in November and scheduled to begin with the 2013-14 academic year.  The arena was an important key to that move, since it gives the ‘Lopes a facility that will be in keeping with those at the D-I level.

As the saying goes, “If you build it, they will come.”  And that’s what’s happening at the small Christian-based school on Phoenix’s west side.

Over the weekend, 3,341 fans showed up at GCU Arena to help cheer the ‘Lopes on to a win over California Baptist and boost their home record to 13-0 this season.  It was a season-high attendance mark and shows what happens when you put a winning program in a winning facility.

The ‘Lopes, who finished last season with a 19-8 overall mark and made their first trip back to the Division II NCAA Tournament in five years, are 17-4 so far this season and 8-2 in the Pacific West Conference.

Having local talent on the floor also helps raise the interest level among the fan base.

Joshua Lowery, a senior guard from Desert Vista High School in Phoenix, led the way in the victory over California Baptist, scoring a game-high 20 points.  And Braylon Pickrel scored eight points in the first half to ignite an offense that established a 27-19 lead at the half.  Pickrel, a 6’10” senior from Red Mountain High School in Mesa, is the PacWest Pre-season Player of the Year.

But Saturday’s game came uncomfortably close to breaking the home win streak, as Cal Baptist was within a basket with four seconds left on the clock.  Lowery went to the line during the Lancers’ final run to make the free throws that preserved the win.

And let’s not forget the contribution from the ‘sixth man’, the home crowd.

“It is unbelievable the emotion and enthusiasm that a crowd brings,” Pennell said after the Cal Baptist game.  “In a close game like this, you live and die on every basket or free throw – and the crowd was outstanding!”

Ahhh…ain’t nothin’ like home, sweet home.

(Photo: GCU Athletics)