By Kevin Sweeney
We all know how much of an advantage having your home crowd behind you can be. A raucous home crowd can give a team enough energy to make the critical run to win the game.
That was certainly the case tonight at GCU Arena, where a sold-out crowd nearly entirely clad in white seemed to provide the energy necessary for Grand Canyon to go on a 19-0 run late in the second half to knock off New Mexico State 83-71 on Saturday night. DeWayne Russell led the Lopes with 31 points and 7 assists.
With Grand Canyon ineligible for the NCAA Tournament or the NIT as they conclude their 4-year transition period to full Division 1 status, tonight’s game against an NMSU team that recently won 20 straight games was like the Lopes’ Super Bowl. The atmosphere certainly lived up to that, as students were seen camped out in tents days before the game to get their tickets, a picture we typically see for games of the magnitude of Duke-UNC.
After getting blitzed out of the gate in the season’s first meeting between the two sides, Grand Canyon made it clear from the outset that they were ready to play. An early 8-0 run by the Lopes gave GCU a 22-13 lead with 9:14 to go in the first half. However, the Aggies, who were playing with a chip on their shoulder after Thursday’s loss to Cal-Bakersfield, responded well, fighting back with a 14-0 run late in the half to retake the lead.
For much of the second half, it looked like NMSU would be able to escape Phoenix with a huge win, as the Aggie lead ballooned to as much as 10 in the second half as NMSU drained three triples in the span of just over a minute and a half.
With 8:33 to go, New Mexico State led 65-57 and seemed to have the momentum on their side. They didn’t score again until there was less than a minute to play in the game.
While the Aggies seemed to tire down the stretch, the Lopes’ energy and confidence grew with every made basket, and the building got a little louder each time GCU drew closer. It was the leaders of the GCU team who carried the load down the stretch, with Russell and redshirt junior Joshua Braun (16 points) making big shot after big shot during the decisive 19-0 run. It was Braun’s contested three with just under 4 minutes to go that gave the Lopes the lead for good at 68-65.
The Aggies just couldn’t halt the GCU run until it was too late. By the time NMSU scored again, the Lopes were up by double digits with under a minute to go, and the NMSU faithful were left wondering “What happened?”.
The win is arguably the biggest of the season for the Lopes, who are now 17-9, 6-3 in the WAC. It positions GCU for a second straight 20 win season, an incredible feat for a school in just its 4th season in Division 1.
Ian Baker led NMSU with 19 points, 8 rebounds and 6 assists. Eli Chuha added 17 points and 11 rebounds for the Aggies. The loss leaves New Mexico State in need of a Cal-Bakersfield loss in order to take the top seed in the WAC Tournament and claim the league’s automatic NIT bid, should they falter in the conference tournament.