Sold-out exhibition game marks new era in GCU basketball

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                </div>Killian Larson took a small slide step into the lane to position himself directly under the basket and then the 6’9″ center scored the first points of the game with […]<!-- AddThis Sharing Buttons below -->
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Killian Larson took a small slide step into the lane to position himself directly under the basket and then the 6’9″ center scored the first points of the game with a soft right-handed baby hook over his UC San Diego defender.

And with that bucket, the ‘Dan Majerle era’ in men’s basketball began Friday night at Grand Canyon University.

The place was rockin’ as the former Phoenix Suns player and assistant coach took up his new home on the Antelopes’ bench.  Marjerle, a Ring of Honor member of the Suns and one of the most popular players to ever wear the purple and orange uniform, has transferred that popularity and celebrity status to the small Christian school in west Phoenix that is just beginning its first year of Division I play.

And the excitement his arrival has brought to the campus was evident Friday night when a sold-out crowd packed the 5.000-seat GCU Arena – for an exhibition game!

But this was more than just a normal exhibition game to start another college basketball season.  As the arena announcer pointed out early in the game, “Those of you here tonight are part of history being made.”  This was GCU’s first step on the road to becoming a legitimate Division I participant. It’s historic because Grand Canyon is the first for-profit university testing the D-I waters.

So this night had a magical quality to it.

The student section was decked out in blue and white T-shirts and was wild and loud, the gym’s sound system bounced off the walls and literally made the floor vibrate, and entertainment was choreographed into every time-out opportunity.  And it all began after the school’s mascot descended from the rafters on a rope to officially signal the start of the festivities.  It all worked together to provide the atmosphere and excitement of major-college athletics.

Majerle, who left the Suns in mid-season last year when he was passed over for the interim head-coaching position when Alvin Gentry was fired, must have felt like he was back in US Airways Center.

They even had some of the same celebrities show up for this one.

NBA Hall-of-Famer Connie Hawkins was sitting courtside, another Suns player from days gone by that fans still remember with great fondness.  His No. 42 uniform number was retired by the Suns to recognize his significant contributions to the team from 1969-73.

And Jerry Colangelo, the former Suns owner and Valley sports icon, was sitting on the other side of the floor,  just two rows behind the scorers’ table.  Colangelo, who has been serving as an assistant to the university president, has a lot invested in the success of the basketball program.  He was brought on board specifically to help the ‘Lopes make the transition to D-I, a process that will take four years before the school, which has joined the Western Athletic Conference, is a full member.

A win just wasn’t in the cards on this night.  After the first basket, the Lopes went nearly five minutes before scoring another point, while the Tritons built a 10-point advantage.  But, by the time the first half hit mid-point, the Lopes had caught up and the rest of the way the two teams would seldom be less that three or four points apart until San Diego pulled away in the final minutes.

The Tritons won this one, 71-63, but neither Majerle nor Colangelo could be too disappointed.  Their program was off to a good start with a team that played hard and worked for every point, a student body that was boiling over with support, and a TV deal with Cox to televise the home games.

Although he couldn’t say it publicly, Majerle was apprehensive about this first game of his new career as a head coach, despite the casual demeanor he exhibited during pre-game warm-ups as he smiled and waved to friends in the stands.  He had watched UC San Diego play and was concerned that his team would be able to keep up with the Tritons, a Division II program that plays in the California Collegiate Athletic Association (CCAA) conference.

However, the Lopes didn’t disappoint their new coach, despite the absence of a pair of local stand-outs on the roster.  Guards Demetrius Walker and Jeff Lowery were both sidelined with injuries.  Walker, a graduate student who played at Arizona State and New Mexico before transferring in this year, played for St. Mary’s High School in Phoenix.  Lowery is a sophomore who graduated from Desert Vista High School in Phoenix.

GCU had shooting woes all night long, finishing with just 41.8 per cent from the field, but out-rebounded San Diego, 36-30.  Blake Davis, also from St. Mary’s High, led the Lopes with nine rebounds; he also scored 10 points and dished out seven assists.

And Jerome Garrison, a junior guard from Mountain Pointe High School in Phoenix, led the team in scoring with 17 points that included five three-pointers.

The regular-season home opener for the men’s team will be Nov. 16 and, judging by the turnout and the enthusiasm at the exhibition game, the place should be packed again.

Move over, Arizona State.  There’s another game in town.

(Photo: GCU Athletics)