Every so often a game is played that for years later begs the question, ‘Where were you when?’ Tonight was one of those games and the fans at Grand Canyon University Arena or the ones following on GCULopes.com will be talking about it for years to come.
Down 72-70 with 1.5 seconds left and needing a win over PacWest Champions Dixie State to keep their postseason chances alive, Braylon Pickrel buried a three from the corner on a terrific inbound pass from Nick Witherill to give the Antelopes the win at the buzzer. The Antelopes had trailed 72-67, but Kyle Speed hit a three with 49 seconds left to cut the margin to two. GCU then forced a turnover of the Red Storm’s Maurice Cole with 16 seconds left. The Antelopes came out of the timeout but an errant pass hit the floor causing a tie up with possession to the ‘Lopes with 1.5 left. The rest was written in the final score – Grand Canyon 73 Dixie State 72.
The win was the ninth straight for Canyon and improved their overall record to 19-7, 13-5 in the Pacific West Conference. Dixie State fell to 20-6, 15-3 in the league.
“It was a hard fought game between two very good teams,” said head coach Russ Pennell. “I don’t think we were as good as we have been from a tactical standpoint, but our effort tonight was supreme and we gave ourselves a chance to win. Games like this you may not always have your best stuff, but you just battle and fight. We just wanted a shot in the end and we literally had that – and it went in.”
So what’s next? Here is what we know. GCU entered the last NCAA West Region poll ranked 10th. Humboldt State, ranked 8th in the poll, and Montana State-Billings, unranked, locked up automatic bids from the CCAA and GNAC, respectively. GCU would need to jump at least two spots to make it into the top-eight and gain the tourney bid. So the body of the work rests with the committee and the ‘Lopes and their fans will await the NCAA Selection Show Sunday night at 8:30 p.m. (Arizona time). The Selection Show will be streamed on ncaa.com.
“We have to be one of the hottest teams in the United States, not just in the west region, said Pennell. “I don’t know many teams that have won nine straight and 11 of 13. We have defeated everyone in our conference and have some good non-conference wins against teams in the other conferences we are going against to get a bid. Are we deserving of going? Absolutely we are. I know this team can at least take way that they played well enough to go to the NCAA’s. It is in someone else’s hands and we will stand by and await the decision.”
The game was played at a frantic and playoff type atmosphere throughout. The two squads saw the lead change 15 times during the game and the score tied on 10 occasions.
Speed led all scorers with 18 points. Witherill added 15 points, 12 in the opening half, and Justin Wesolowski had 10 points. It was fitting for the three seniors, as they led the way in their final game at GCU Arena.
Pickrel finished with a team-high 10 rebounds to go with his seven points and four blocks.
The ‘Lopes shot 43.9 percent from the field (25-for-57) tonight and made 10 three-pointers in the contest.
“Our talent is about as good as anyone in the conference,” added Pennell. “I saw glimpses of it, but we were not able to put together 40 minute games consistently in the first half of the year. We had some young guys and transfers trying to find their niche on this team. I could see it coming in practice; our practices were so good. I knew that over time these guys would begin playing like they practiced. My biggest concern was whether or not they would get discouraged before that started happening. They didn’t, they believed in it and we were able to run the table after that Chaminade game. I’m very proud of these players and my staff.”