NAU vs. GCU basketball…start of a new in-state rivalry?

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                </div>  A new in-state rivalry in Arizona may be hatching in men’s college basketball. It has been percolating since last season and may have come to the surface last night […]<!-- AddThis Sharing Buttons below -->
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A new in-state rivalry in Arizona may be hatching in men’s college basketball.

It has been percolating since last season and may have come to the surface last night in the first round of the Collegeinsider.com Postseason Tournament (CIT) that was held at Grand Canyon University in Phoenix.

The Northern Arizona University Lumberjacks rolled down the hill from Flagstaff to participate in the tournament, which was started six years ago to offer a postseason opportunity for schools not participating in the NCAA or NIT tournaments.  Grand Canyon is ineligible to compete in those tournaments until they complete a four-year transition period they are going through to move from Division II to D-I.

The Jacks, a D-I team that plays in the Big Sky Conference, tried to throw a net over GCU for the first 20 minutes without much success.  They chased the Antelopes throughout the first half, finally catching up with them with 1:25 left before intermission to take a 36-35 lead.  But the accomplishment was short-lived.  Within seconds, the ‘Lopes had regained the lead and went into the locker room with a 40-36 advantage.

The second half had so many lead changes and tied scores that it was difficult to count.  The biggest margin in the scoring was the nine-point lead for NAU with 27 seconds left to play in the game as the Jacks made a push in the final minute of the game to carry them to a 75-70 victory.

This wasn’t a Territorial Cup contest between Arizona and Arizona State, but it was a game that had every appearance of a match-up between in-state rivals.  Loose balls immediately became violent scrums, sometimes involving four or five players at a time with arms and legs flailing wildly in pursuit of one more precious possession.

And, despite the fact that it’s spring break and the student pep band wasn’t there to gin up the fan base, the 7,000-seat GCU Arena was rocking, as 5,702 appreciative fans were enjoying every minute of one of the best games of the season.

The good-sized contingent of NAU fans that made the two-hour trip for the game found they were on hand to help the team turn a page in the history of the basketball program.   Not only did this game give third-year head coach Jack Murphy his first 20-win season, but it also marked the first postseason win since NAU stepped up to Division I back in 1970.

Actually, this wasn’t technically a win for Murphy because the coach didn’t make the trip, instead turning the game over to assistant Matt Dunn while he served a one-game suspension for some unsportsmanlike behavior following a frustrating loss in the final regular-season game against Montana.

With or without the head coach, there’s no love lost between these two teams.  They met last season in Flagstaff, with the Jacks pulling out a two-point win.  But the real rub came the year before when DeWayne Russell, an NAU recruiting coup, left the program just before the start of the 2013-14 season and transferred to GCU.

The Lopes’ new head coach, Dan Majerle, didn’t have Russell available last season because the junior had to sit out his year of transfer ineligibily.  But this year he has become an integral part of the GCU offense as the starting point guard and was on the floor against his old team last night.

The local standout, a graduate of Peoria High School, had an off-night as he connected on just one of 10 shots from the field and finished with four points.  It was a couple of seniors playing in their final game of their college careers that carried the offensive load for the ‘Lopes, with 6’3″ guard Royce Woolridge, a local favorite from Sunnyslope High School, scoring a game-high 24 points and 6’9″ Daniel Alexander contributing a double-double, 11 points and 13 rebounds.

Northern Arizona (20-14) countered with their own senior attack, as Aaseem Dixon led the Jacks with 21 points and Quinton Upshur added 19 points.  With their graduation in the spring, NAU loses its starting back court.

Hopefully, there will be future meetings between these two teams that will stoke the fires of a rivalry.  While NAU has more to lose since the ‘Lopes (17-15) are not considered a team on their level yet, and would undoubtedly prefer not to risk the embarrassment of a loss, that doesn’t mean it won’t happen.

From a fans’ standpoint, that would be a game to circle on the calendar.

(Photo: GCU Athletics/ Darryl Webb)