Josh Braun put up a pump fake in the corner and then drove the baseline for a lay-up that put the first two points of a new GCU men’s basketball season on the board. That first bucket brought a thundering response from the fans that had filled Grand Canyon University Arena last night for the Antelopes’ first contest of the 2015-16 season, an exhibition game with New Mexico Highlands.
It also meant the fans could take their seats. A rule for every home game at GCU Arena says no one is allowed to sit until the ‘Lopes score.
Boubacar Toure, the 6’11” redshirt freshman center, contributed the next couple of baskets from his sweet spot under the rim, and then Braun added another basket before the first TV timeout that would give the ‘Lopes a 9-4 lead they would hold the rest of the way, eventually posting a lopsided 84-53 rout.
Braun. a redshirt sophomore and a local product from Boulder Creek High School and Westwind Prep, and Toure, an import from Dakar, Senegal, finished the night with 13 points apiece, even though Toure picked up a couple of early fouls and saw limited time in the first half.
DeWayne Russell, a transfer from Northern Arizona University who attended Peoria High School, led the team’s scoring with 16 points, and De’Andre Davis followed with 14 points to give the ‘Lopes four players in double figures. Russell, who is generously listed at 5’11”, is a super-quick, slashing point guard that was the Arizona Big Schools Player of the Year as a senior at Peoria High and has become a crowd favorite at GCU for his exciting style of play.
The Cowboys closed to within one point with seven minutes left in the first half, but GCU wasted no time in running the lead up again and finished the half with a 47-31 advantage. Head coach Dan Majerle was able to sub freely and often in the first half and eight different players put up points.
After an intermission that featured a crowd-entertaining musical parody of The Village People, GCU piled up a 26-point lead with 13 minutes still to play, and then coasted home the rest of the way.
And the defense did its part as well, holding the Cowboys to just 22.6 percent shooting from the floor.
The gym was packed to the rafters as GCU students had been eagerly awaiting the first game of the season, even though the regular season doesn’t start until next week when their ‘Lopes will host Portland State in a Friday night tilt.
“To have this kind of crowd in an exhibition game is amazing,” said Majerle after the game.
Nice to hear, but let’s face it, Majerle had to know the place would be packed and the noise level from the hyper-motivated student section and accompanying band would have the nearly 8,000-seat gym rockin’ and rollin’.
It’s been that way since the former NBA player – eight years with the Phoenix Suns – and assistant Suns coach took the GCU program over three years ago to begin the four-year transition from Division II to D-I participation. His arrival sparked a new level of interest in the basketball program, which is the main sport on campus since the small Christian school does not field a football team.
The men’s team, which doesn’t even have full status as a D-I program yet, draws attendance that completely overshadows the Division-I program at NAU and compares closely to the home crowds at Arizona State. The ‘Lopes averaged 5,431 fans over 21 home games last season, while ASU drew in 5,985 for 18 games, and NAU averaged 1,727 for 16 games. The University of Arizona Wildcats, thanks to their long tradition of success and several Elite Eight appearances in recent years, tops all of the Arizona colleges with an average attendance of 14,591 over 17 games.
Last night’s exhibition game was played in front of a crowd of 6,625 fans at GCU Arena.
Majerle appears to have found the big man in Toure that he needed to complete a roster that he is building to be able to compete when the program emerges from the transition period after next season. This team definitely has the potential to put up more points than in seasons past.
“I love the fact that we can throw it inside this year,” says the former player known fondly by Suns fans as Thunder Dan. “Last year we couldn’t do that.”
Majerle has been doing all right with what was left in the cupboard when he took over from Russ Pennell in March of 2013, plus what he has been able to accomplish on the recruiting trail – a path that has even taken him to Australia to mine talent from down under (two players on this year’s roster hail from Australia).
His inaugural season resulted in a third-place finish in the Western Athletic Conference and last season’s squad won 17 games to finish in second place, and Majerle was rewarded over the summer with a new four-year contract.
And when the latest edition starts out by scoring 84 points, expectations will be high this year and fan interest will peak to a new level of excitement.
The west Phoenix school built a new 5,000-seat home for its basketball teams that opened for the 2011-12 season. Two years later, an additional 3,000 or so seats were added to the state-of-the-art facility.
Now it looks like Majerle is working his way toward filling those additional seats as well.
And from early indications, this year’s team is going to be a step in that direction.
(Photo: GCU Athletics)