Photo Credit: David Kadlubowski/GCU Athletics
LAS VEGAS – The third time was the charm for the Grand Canyon men’s basketball team.
After two-straight losses to New Mexico State in the Western Athletic Conference Championship Game, the Lopes flipped the script beating the Aggies – for the third time this year – 74-56 to earn their first ever trip to the NCAA tournament.
For the first time in school history, THE LOPES ARE GOING DANCING!! 💜💜 pic.twitter.com/OHVcIVlRga
— GCU Men’s Basketball (@GCU_MBB) March 14, 2021
GCU out shot, out rebounded and simply outplayed the WAC’s alpha for the past several years.
When the dust settled, first-year head coach Bryce Drew showered praise on his seniors, specifically veteran holdovers Oscar Frayer and Alessandro Lever.
“They worked really hard,” he said shortly after walking off the court with the championship trophy and newly-cut net. “We practiced them hard. We practiced them long. Hopefully you get to these moments and play at a high-level. They bought in and they played hard.”
FIRST TIME FEELING 🕺
— NCAA March Madness (@marchmadness) March 14, 2021
The top-seeded Lopes (17-6) were clearly pressing early but seemed to find their rhythm offensively behind sophomore point guard and Shadow Mountain High alum Jovan Blacksher, Jr. who scored five points before the first media timeout.
GCU’s hot shooting continued as the first half progressed. Chance McMillan hit a pair of threes and, once again, Basha High alum Gabe McGlothan was efficient, as well as aggressive on the glass. The Lopes shot 50% from the field and 44% from behind the arc for the first 14 minutes of the first half.
The Aggies, who ended their COVID-shortened season 12-8, sputtered offensively – except for senior guard Evan Gilyard II – who scored eight points in the first 12 minutes to help keep NM State close.
The tempo and scoring picked up in towards the conclusion of the half but the Lopes had an answer for every New Mexico State burst. Blacksher’s three in the closing seconds of the first half extended GCU’s lead to 41-26 as Drew’s team shot 57% from the field and 55% on three’s over the first 20 minutes.
The Lopes’ balanced first half attack was spear-headed by Blacksher’s 15, while McMillan had nine and Lever chipped in seven. GCU controlled the glass, holding a 20-10 advantage and dished out eight assists in the first half, compared to just two for the Aggies.
New Mexico State shot just 33% and did not attempt a free throw as the teams went to the locker room.
GCU started the second half strong, continuing to shoot well and making the Aggies take difficult, deep contested shots.
A flagrant foul on McGlothan seemed to spark New Mexico State who cut the Lopes’ lead to 12 on a Jabari Rice layup with around 13 minutes to play However, the Lopes would respond with stingy defense and efficient offense. Halfway through the second half the lead was back to 17.
A monster dunk, plus one by center Asbjorn Midtgaard was followed by an offensive rebound and put-back by the senior transfer which pushed the margin back to 19.
The Aggies would eventually run out of gas and both head coaches emptied their benches in the final two minutes before GCU players, coaches and staff members rushed the floor as the final horn sounded.
— The Western Athletic Conference (@WACsports) March 14, 2021
Blacksher, who was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, led all scorers with 19 points. He also grabbed seven rebounds and didn’t commit a turnover in 35 minutes of action Saturday night.
“He was simply outstanding for two-straight nights,” Drew said. “He controlled the tempo. He did just a tremendous job running this team.”
The Lopes will know their opening round opponent in Indianapolis Sunday afternoon.
This ride isn’t over yet.