The Grand Canyon University men’s basketball team waited five long seasons for a chance to play in the Western Athletic Conference Tournament.
Once they got to the WAC Tournament, they made the most of the historic opportunity, winning their first two games to earn the right to play for the tourney title. They dug themselves out of an 18-point hole in the tourney opener with Missouri-Kansas City and then ran No. 2 seed Utah Valley out of the gym in the first half of the second contest for a 77-74 win that put them in the title game.
But they’ll have to wait until next year to take another shot at winning it, losing Saturday night to New Mexico State, 72-58, in the championship game in Las Vegas.
The Lopes went through a four-year transition period that was required in moving up from Division II to becoming fully-accredited as a D-I program. During that time, they were not eligible to play in either the conference tourney or the NCAA Tournament.
So this squad made school history by becoming the first to play a D-I schedule. They also became the first to appear in a WAC Tournament.
And there’s still plenty of room in the record books for teams coming after them. There will still be the first team to win the WAC tourney, which means that team will also become the first to appear in the NCAA Tournament since a conference tournament win provides an automatic seat at the Big Dance.
But right now, that isn’t much comfort for a team that was picked in the preseason to win it all.
“We wanted to win the WAC,” said head coach Dan Majerle prior to the meeting with NMSU. “We wanted to go to the tournament. That’s what we’ve been preparing to do for five years.”
And they expected to find New Mexico State waiting for them if they reached the game that would decide whether they would make it into the NCAA Tournament. The Aggies (28-5), the reigning WAC champion coming into the season, have dominated the conference in recent years. GCU (22-11) split with the Aggies the last couple of seasons, but lost to NMSU in both meetings this season.
For awhile it looked like the No. 3-seeded Lopes had found the secret to getting past the top-seeded Aggies. The Lopes opened the game with a defensive intensity that kept the score close, although there were so few points scored in the first 15 minutes that it resembled a scoreboard you’d find in a high school JV game. The Lopes’ defense forced the Aggies to miss 10 of 11 shots during one stretch.
But a 19-4 run that included 11 unanswered points by the Aggies in the final four minutes of the first half gave them an 11-point lead that they carried into the locker room, and then stretched it to 14 as the third quarter opened. The Aggies kept the Lopes at arm’s length the rest of the way, although the Lopes whittled the deficit to six points with just under 4 1/2 minutes to play and looked like they were poised to complete the comeback effort.
Another run of 11 unanswered points by the Aggies down the stretch put the win out of reach.
But it was more than just the scoring runs by the Aggies that spelled the difference in this one. Fouls and turnovers were killers for the Lopes. NMSU got to the free-throw line 27 times, 17 more than GCU, and collected 20 points there. The Aggies also converted the Lopes’ 13 turnovers into 22 points. And the Aggies won the battle on the boards, 37-30.
GCU had three players in double figures. Alessandro Lever, the 6’10” freshman from Italy, led the team with 20 points, followed by seniors Keonta Vernon (17) and Casey Benson (12). Benson, who went to school at Corona del Sol High School in Temple but spent three years playing at Oregon, also had seven rebounds, three assists, and two steals.
“We’ve got one of the best student fan bases in the country,” Majerle said, in assessing the program’s future. “We have a growing university. The sky’s the limit for this team. We’ve got great young players coming back.
“I know the program’s in great shape and I’m lucky to be here.
The Lopes just got an invitation to play in the College Basketball Invitational to extend their postseason run. The Havocs, the well-publicized loud and rowdy student section, will be excited to find out their team will be back in action at GCU Arena where they will host Mercer University (Georgia) for Wednesday’s opening round.
However, Majerle has his work cut out for him in the next couple of days. After a huge emotional let-down in the WAC tourney, he will have to find a way to re-energize the troops for this encore opportunity.
(Photo: GCU Athletics)