For the last two seasons, the New Mexico State Aggies have been the gold standard by which Dan Majerle was judging his Grand Canyon University men’s basketball program.
The third-year GCU head coach couldn’t seem to get even close to beating the Aggies, the four-time defending Western Athletic Conference champions. The Aggies, as Majerle put it, are a team “we’ve never even sniffed a win against.”
It was a test that frustrated the former Phoenix Suns player and assistant coach through five meetings with the WAC power as Majerle began the process of guiding the Antelopes through a four-year transition period from Division II to D-I acceptance.
Last night, his ‘Lopes finally passed the test with a thrilling 79-75 victory. The monkey is off Thunder Dan’s back.
And what a way to earn the signature win he has been working toward…in a heart-stopping battle that came down to the final three seconds. A game that had the ‘Lopes just four points behind at the half and tied with 1:32 left in the game.
The crowd of 7,413 (a new attendance record) that squeezed into a packed GCU Arena exploded with the final buzzer and poured onto the floor. And Majerle was so excited he couldn’t contain himself as the post-game interview started, letting loose with a celebratory yell to help release some of the pent-up emotion from what has to be the biggest win of his time at the small Christian college in west Phoenix.
Majerle is actually ahead of schedule in preparing Grand Canyon for the 2017-18 season, when the NCAA probationary period will be over and the program will become a fully-accredited D-I program, eligible to play in the NCAA Tournament. He has steadily improved the program over the first two years and this season the ‘Lopes are off to a 15-2 start and, with the NMS win, are 2-0 in conference play.
Last night, his team showed they could handle the physical play that comes with a team that is leading the WAC in rebounding with 42 boards a game; defend a team that features the pre-season conference Player of the Year, Pascal Siakam, who is averaging 23.4 points and 11.6 rebounds a game; and hold it together down the stretch when just a couple of baskets separated the two teams for almost the full 20 minutes of the second half.
The 6’9″ Siakam got his usual dozen rebounds, but the ‘Lopes were able to hold him to 17 points.
After a first half that saw NMS take an early 15-8 lead and control most of the way, this turned into a barn-burner when the fans returned to their seats.
Josh Braun, the senior guard from Boulder Creek High School in Anthem, set the tone for the second half by coming out of the locker room and nailing a long three-point shot just 20 seconds into play to close the gap to one point, and then little more than a minute later sunk a pair of free throws to give the ‘Lopes their first lead of the game.
And Braun was playing sick, his coach pointed out at half time. Maybe that was a good thing because he finished with a team-high 23 points and did everything else necessary to wrap up the win, from diving for loose balls to being a force on the backboards; he collected 11 rebounds.
“Josh is such a warrior,” Majerle said after the game. “He guts through it (being sick). He’s not only one of the best players in the conference, but he’s one of the better players in the whole country.”
GCU slowly built a lead as the second half began, stretching it to seven points with just under 14 minutes to go when Keonta Vernon dropped in a soft hook shot and then added a lay-up, and DeWayne Russell buried a 15-foot jumper to make it 51-44.
But that didn’t last long as the two teams narrowed the margin to just a few points as they exchanged leads a number of times before the Aggies tied the game at 69-69 with 1:32 left to play.
The ‘Lopes regained a four-point lead after that and managed to hold the Aggies off down the final minute of the game, although the visitors tightened it once again to one point, 74-75, on a three-pointer from their junior guard, Ian Baker at the seven-second mark.
But Majerle made sure that when the Aggies continued to intentionally foul, the ball was in the hands of Braun. He responded by making seven out of eight free throws over the final 30 seconds to seal the win.
Braun was one of three GCU players in double figures. He was joined by forward Grandy Glaze, who had 15 points, and Russell with 11 points and four assists. Russell, the senior point guard from Peoria High School, had a near-flawless night at the point, playing 32 minutes without a turnover.
GCU became the first WAC team to beat NMS since last season and broke the Aggies’ 14-game win streak in conference play. The ‘Lopes have now put together eight straight wins of their own and have a week off before hosting Utah Valley next Saturday.
(Photo: GCU Athletics)