GCU’s Havocs making the most of the national stage during Final Four

PHOENIX — Grand Canyon University’s DeWayne Russell already had the hometown crowd in his pocket before stepping onto the court Thursday night at the 29th annual State Farm College Slam Dunk and 3-Point Championships at GCU.

By competing in the men’s three-point portion of the event on the floor he played on for three seasons after transferring from Northern Arizona, Russell knew what GCU’s student section, the Havocs, had in store.

The rest of the college basketball basketball world knows, too, after the Havocs stole the show during the competition and almost lifted Russell to victory. He lost in the final to Iowa’s Peter Jok.

“It meant a lot,” Russell said. “Especially going in front of them, it made it so much better.”

Cheering for Russell at every chance, the Havocs showed the rest of the sold out crowd of 7,000 at GCU Arena the energy they bring to Antelopes games.

“It’s just all emotion on the go,” said Tyler Weeks, a student at GCU and member of the Havocs. “We’ve been doing this for the entire season now. So whenever we see a Lope in action we just start cheering, going crazy.”

With chants of “Let’s Go Lopes” and “G-C-U” from the student section, the arena was electric throughout the competition.

“Every game, no matter who we play against, they always come out rocking like that,” Russell said.

Grand Canyon University guard DeWayne Russell steps out onto the court prior to the College Three-Point Championships at GCU on Thursday, March 30, 2017, in Phoenix. (Photo by Tyler Drake/ Cronkite News)

Through each round of the competition, Russell was clearly feeding off the energy of the Havocs. Each time he made a shot, the roar from the student section got louder and louder. He even got “M-V-P” chants at the end of the second round.

“Some of the shots went in, I think, strictly off of them (Havocs) so, you know, (I was) happy I got to perform in front of them,” Russell said. “I wasn’t surprised (with the energy). They do that every time they come in here so it definitely wasn’t a surprise.”

But ultimately even the hometown love couldn’t help Russell take home the championship trophy as Jok won on his birthday — and was serenaded with “Happy Birthday” by the Havocs.

“I wish I would have gotten the win, but I’m just happy I was out here one last time,” Russell said.

In the final round, Russell encouraged everyone to get on their feet as he took the court. The energy faded slightly after Russell failed to find his shooting rhythm, but as his final shot bounced in and out, the Havocs’ appreciative cheers gave Russell a fitting exit.

“It was unbelievable,” Weeks said. “For him to play his entire basketball career in the Valley and represent our school very well, he got us on ESPN, such a great time seeing him represent the Lopes.”

At GCU, Russell led the Western Athletic Conference in scoring and assists this season, averaging 21.2 points per game and 5.4 assists. He shot 39.7 percent (52 of 131) from behind the arc, good for sixth best in the conference. Russell scored 593 total points, the best single-season scoring total since GCU moved to Division I four years ago.

The Grand Canyon University Havocs put on their best game attire for the State Farm College Slam Dunk and Three-Point Championships on Thursday, March 30, 2017, in Phoenix. (Photo by Tyler Drake/ Cronkite News)

Russell was one of eight men’s college basketball players who competed in the event’s three-point contest. The event also included a women’s three-point competition, which was won by Kansas State’s Kindred Wesemann and a slam dunk championship, won by Georgetown’s Rodney Pryor.

Going against Russell in the men’s three-point competition were big-name players such as UCLA’s Bryce Alford and Villanova’s Kris Jenkins, along with fellow local Torian Graham of Arizona State.

Graham was knocked out in the first round and received loud boos from the GCU crowd, which drowned out the ASU fans in the crowd trying to cheer him on.

“Great atmosphere,” Graham said. “Sucks I had to go against a GCU guy in the first round, but I mean it was a good experience. Good turnout, a packed crowd, so it was a blessing. Good experience. I’m really excited about it. Had fun.”

A member of the Havocs held up a sign during the contest that read, “Hey ASU, why won’t you play us?” It was a jab at ASU’s refusal to schedule contests against GCU since 2013.

“I’m here shooting threes in a competition, and they are booing,” Graham said, laughing. “We weren’t even playing a game. But it was a good experience. It’s all love.”

In support of Russell, GCU head coach Dan Majerle was also in attendance at the three-point event and served as a judge in the slam dunk competition. Joining Majerle as a judge was former Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner, and current Cardinal players Tyrann Mathieu and Patrick Peterson.

The three-point competition won’t be Russell’s last event this weekend. The Peoria native is also participating in the Reese’s All-Star Game at University of Phoenix Stadium Friday.

(Video by Jake Garcia/Cronkite News)