When you’re running a Division I college basketball program, a win against an NAIA program in just its second season of existence ain’t much to crow about.
But when you’re a new head coach looking for your first win, it’s like manna from heaven.
Wednesday night the Grand Canyon University women’s basketball team ended a four-game losing streak to begin the 2016-17 season, the first for head coach Nicole Powell who was hired in April to take over the program in its first season as a fully-accredited D-I program. The small Christian college in west Phoenix just finished a four-year transition period from D-II to D-I and compete in the Western Athletic Conference.
After season-opening losses to Rice, Duke (yes, that Duke), Cal Poly, and UNLV, the Antelopes picked themselves up off the canvas and notched Powell’s first win by beating in-state foe, Benedictine University of Mesa, which won 17 games last year in its inaugural season of play. The Redhawks play in the California Pacific Conference and were 3-3 coming into Wednesday’s match-up with GCU.
It took major contributions from a couple of players who weren’t even on last year’s roster to help pull off the 67-53 victory at GCU Arena. Neither player had been a starter this season.
Jordan Jackson, a redshirt senior transfer from California, came off the bench to lead the team with a career-high 18 points. Camille Hailey, another California import, got her first college career start as a freshman and the 5’9″ point guard responded by contributing 17 points, four rebounds, and three assists. A series of recent injuries gave both players a chance for some court time.
Hailey’s partner in the back court, redshirt senior August Touchard also scored in double figures, posting 11 points to go with eight boards and six assists.
But this win didn’t come easy, even against an opponent it was expected to beat. Benedictine held a one-point lead at halftime and it took a 24-point third-quarter performance by the ‘Lopes to pull ahead and give them the cushion they needed the rest of the way.
This has been a baptism by fire for Powell, who has never held a head-coach job. However, the Mountain Pointe High School (Phoenix) graduate enjoyed an impressive college career at Stanford and then spent 11 years in the WNBA before serving as an assistant coach at Gonzaga (1 year) and Oregon (3 years).
It’s way too early to tell whether she will find a head coach’s job to be a good fit. However, GCU may be a tough place to get a start on that path because she will have to deal with the constant comparisons to the men’s program where Dan Majerle has built that program into a small-school power and, along with that success, created an insanely-enthusiastic following among the student body that fills the gym for every game.
The ‘Lopes go on the road for the first of three straight away games, taking on Valparaiso tonight in Indiana. The Crusaders are 2-1 on the year and have five of their top six scorers from last season back, but still represent a good chance for GCU to put together a couple of back-to-back wins.
Valparaiso, which switched from the Horizon League to play in the Missouri Valley Conference this year, is coming off a 10-21 season that included just four Horizon wins. This will be the first meeting between the two schools.
What Powell has to be hoping is that her ‘Lopes get back to the kind of game they played against Duke, the No. 12-ranked team in the country when they met at GCU Arena on Nov. 12. The Blue Devils left town with a 74-61 win, but they had to work for it. GCU took an early lead and stayed within an arm’s length the rest of the way, trailing by just seven with less than five minutes to play.
The 13-point loss was a definite step forward after getting embarrassed by Duke last season in a 90-47 blow-out.
Powell has only six returning players – two of them starters – from a team that finished 15-12 overall and 7-7 in the WAC. So it’s going to take awhile to get the newcomers into the mix and up to speed.
Wednesday’s game shows that it’s beginning to happen. And with good results.
(Photo: GCU Athletics)