Sean Miller was in Los Angeles Saturday night, trying to recover from his team’s 69-62 loss to Gonzaga in the Naismith Hall of Fame game. The University of Arizona head coach most surely wasn’t thinking about the game back in Phoenix between Grand Canyon University and the visiting Louisville Cardinals, which started just about the time his game was finishing up.
After all, his match-up with GCU was still three games down the road. And besides, GCU, which is still transitioning from Division II to full accreditation as a D-I program, was surely going to get blown out by the No. 14 Cardinals. Right?
Wrong. It didn’t go down that way. And Miller will have to get out the game film to find out how the Antelopes held a one-point lead at the half, 37-36, and hung with Louisville the rest of the way to put a real scare in the three-time national champions.
It marked the first time this season that the Cardinals didn’t go into halftime with a lead. Louisville did re-gain the lead early in the third quarter, but the ‘Lopes didn’t relinquish it until the 13:16 mark of the second half. The Cardinals couldn’t pull away from the undersized, bench-thin GCU team that stayed within two or three baskets the rest of the way before succumbing, 79-70.
Both teams were playing short-handed, with GCU missing three key players – most notably Josh Braun, the 6’4″ redshirt junior guard from Boulder Creek High School and Westwind Prep. Braun, who led the Western Athletic Conference (WAC) last year in three-point and free-throw percentage, is the team’s second-leading scorer with 14.5 points a game.
The effects of the thin active-duty roster showed up in the stats. Louisville’s bench outscored the ‘Lopes, 38-5.
As it turns out, all the ‘Lopes really needed was their 5’10 point guard who penetrated the Louisville defense almost at will and scored from just about every spot on the court. DeWayne Russell, who was a standout at Peoria High School and spent his freshman year at Northern Arizona University before transferring to GCU, scored 42 points to lead all scorers and tie a WAC single-game record.
The deafening noise from the crowd of 7,493 fans (a new attendance record) that packed into the 7,000-seat GCU Arena fueled Russell’s performance, and the student section called The Havocs added to to the frenzy and made it almost impossible for Louisville’s coach, Rick Pitino, to communicate with his players during timeouts.
“In my 40 years of coaching college basketball, this is one of the toughest crowds I’ve had to face,” said the Hall of Fame coach after the game. ” Whether we go to Duke, Kentucky – nothing was as tough as that environment tonight.”
Saturday’s game was the first on the road for Louisville (7-1) this season.
Pitino also had words of high praise for Russell: “That was one of the best guard performances I’ve seen against my players in all my years of coaching.” Russell’s 42 points were the second-most scored by an individual in Louisville program history and also set a high mark for future players at GCU; it’s the single-game high score since beginning play at the D-I level.
GCU, which posted a 27-7 record last year and made a post-season run to the quarterfinals of the CollegeInsider.com tournament, is off to a 3-4 start, but two of those losses were to Louisville and then-No. 1 Duke.
And it doesn’t get any easier in the non-conference portion of the schedule, with No. 20 Arizona on tap Dec. 14 in Tucson.
But first the ‘Lopes have to prepare for Wednesday’s game with San Diego State (6-2), a team that has made six NCAA Tournament appearances out of the last seven years. Last year, GCU pulled off a stunning 52-45 upset over the Aztecs in San Diego, just the ninth time in the last ten years that the Aztecs lost a game at home.
This year, Wednesday’s game is in GCU Arena and the Aztecs will have to face the same sea of purple that stunned Louisville.
The Havocs will be ready for this one and looking for revenge, after letting the Cardinals escape with a win.
The Aztecs have no idea what awaits them in that 7,000-seat explosion of school spirit. It’s something you have to experience first-hand.
(Photo: GCU Athletics)