Record start helps GCU women’s hoops jump into D-I play

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                </div>While the Grand Canyon University men’s basketball team continues to play to before sellout crowds in its 5,000-seat arena and regularly hosts sports celebrities like Charles Barkley, Connie Hawkins, and […]<!-- AddThis Sharing Buttons below -->
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While the Grand Canyon University men’s basketball team continues to play to before sellout crowds in its 5,000-seat arena and regularly hosts sports celebrities like Charles Barkley, Connie Hawkins, and Jerry Colangelo at its home games…the woman’s team was quietly setting a school record by getting off to a 5-0 start.

Both teams have moved into uncharted waters this year, as the school moves up this year to Division I competition and joins the Western Athletic Conference (WAC) to begin the four-year process to full-accreditation.

The men didn’t get out of the starting blocks as smoothly as the women, losing three of their first four games, as well as the exhibition contest to start the season.  But they’re on a four-game win streak and have another full week to prepare for their next game, Saturday against Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff.

But, even while losing, their fan support was off the charts.  That enthusiasm has been more about the program’s new head coach, Dan Majerle, who has become the face of the school.  The former NBA all-star is wildly popular in the state after his playing career with the Phoenix Suns and four more years spent on the Suns’ bench as an assistant coach.

The women’s team doesn’t have the same lustre, but has generated its own level of excitement – by winning. Trent May is in his sixth season as head coach and has compiled winning seasons in each of his years at the small Christian-based college in west Phoenix.  He’s 76-16 over the last thee years, his 23-9 finish last year is the third 20-win season in a row, and he has taken the Antelopes to the NCAA Tournament four of the last five years.  The 2010-11 squad went all the way to the NCAA Tournament Sweet Sixteen.

Last season ended in the semi-finals at the West Regional, the third year in a row the team advanced to the second round.

This season May is trying to blend seven returning players with seven newcomers.  But he’s also been able to bring in some seasoned talent to help with the leap to D-I play; half of the six-player recruiting class are transfers with college experience.

So far, this team has shown that it can score, make big comebacks, win tight games, and play with the big boys (er, girls). The Lopes scored 92 points in an exhibition win against Western State, came back from 17 points down to North Texas to win in overtime, and lost close games to long-established D-I teams, Mississippi State (loss by 9 points) and former No. 25-ranked UCLA (by two points).

Judy Jones, a senior guard/forward who joined the program last year from University of Texas-San Antonio, has been stoking the fire in the Lopes’ engine so far, leading the team with 14.8 points and nine rebounds a game. She was named the WAC Player of the Week for the week of Dec. 1 when she averaged 18 points, 9.8 rebounds, 2.3 assists, and two steals per game.

But May expects this year’s success to be a team effort, which is what it will take to show the ‘Lopes belong at this level.

“There is something extremely special about this group,” he said after the huge comeback against North Texas. “It’s not hard to pinpoint.  We knew that we had an unselfish group.  It’s not about who gets the job done, but rather it’s about that ‘we’ collectively.”

That collective effort seems to be getting the job done so far.  But the real test will arrive Jan. 2 when GCU heads to Reno to take on Texas Pan American in its first-ever Division I conference game.

(Photo: GCU Athletics/Daryl Webb)