After historic regular season, GCU turns attention to WAC Tournament

First-year coach Bryce Drew led the Grand Canyon men’s basketball team to its first Western Athletic Conference title. It begins play in the WAC Tournament Friday. (Photo courtesy of Grand Canyon Athletics)

PHOENIX – Grand Canyon made program history Saturday by winning a share of the Western Athletic Conference regular season championship, the school’s first conference hoops crown at the Division I level.

Now, the Lopes have more history within reach.

With their 74-64 victory over WAC co-champion Utah Valley Saturday night at GCU Arena, the Lopes clinched the top seed in the WAC Tournament that begins today at Orleans Arena in Las Vegas. An automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament is on the line there, a prize Grand Canyon has been chasing since joining the WAC and the NCAA’s highest division in 2013.

“It’s kind of surreal (winning the regular season title), but you know, it’s not over,” said sophomore forward Gabe McGlothan. “It’s a great moment that we have, but at the end of the day we want to win the tournament as well, and go to March Madness. That’s the goal.”

As the top seed, Canyon has a bye into Friday’s semifinals, when the Lopes will face the winner of the first round Cal Baptist-Seattle matchup. A victory in that game would send the Lopes to the tournament championship game for a third time. They lost to New Mexico State in the WAC Tournament final in 2018 and 2019.

The Lopes finally broke through for the regular season title in their first season under coach Bryce Drew, who replaced Dan Majerle a year ago. Majerle, who led the program for seven seasons, was dismissed after a 13-17 season in 2019-20.

Drew has won five regular season conference titles in his brief coaching career, which started at his alma mater Valparaiso and includes three seasons at Vanderbilt.

“To be at home and have a chance to play for a conference championship, and then to be able to do it, those are memories … they’ll come back and show their families years from now what they were able to accomplish here,” Drew said of the team’s first conference title.

Jovan Blacksher Jr. (left) is among the players that hopes to help GCU earn its first NCAA Tournament bid. (Photo by Marlee Smith/Cronkite News)

Grand Canyon went into its final two regular season games, both against Utah Valley, needing at least one victory to clinch at least a share of the title. The Lopes lost the first game, but bounced back in the final meeting.

“I don’t even have the words to describe it,” said GCU senior Alessandro Lever, who now ranks third all-time on the GCU scoring list with 1,603 points. “We finally did it. We made history.”

McGlothan couldn’t hold back a smile when asked about the impact the seniors had on the team.

“It’s just great. For the work that they put in, the time that they had here. It’s just great being able to send them off with kind of like a big, ‘Thank you,’” McGlothan said.

Lever has been at GCU since 2017, and the importance of a conference title was clear to him.

“It’s been four years of hard work,” Lever said. “The last couple of months have been amazing for us. It just feels great to be in this position, to have a chance to make history for GCU.”

This season was one like no other, with cancellations and postponements across the country due to COVID-19 outbreaks programs.

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The Lopes went through a three-week pause in February when a weekend series against Texas-Rio Grande Valley and a single game against Ca State Northridge were canceled.

McGlothan said the Lopes remained focused on their long-term goals during the “trials and tribulations” of a unique in-season break.

“I think the guys stayed locked in mentally,” McGlothan said.

The WAC Tournament quarterfinals and semifinals can be seen on ESPN+, and the WAC Championship Game will be aired on ESPNU Saturday, Mar. 13 at 8 p.m. CT.

Coincidentally, the championship game falls on the 23rd anniversary of one shining NCAA Tournament moment.

It was Drew’s game-winning 3-point shot on a gadget play designed by his father that lifted Valparaiso to a first round upset of Ole Miss in the 1998 NCAA Tournament.

“I don’t think I’ll show them that play,” Drew said, drawing laughs during a news conference this week. “I think they know the magnitude … it’s just exciting.

“It’s just fun watching the energy and excitement of March.”

Dylan Wilhelm DIL-lun WIL-helm (he/him/his)
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Dylan Wilhelm expects to graduate in May 2022 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. Wilhelm, who has worked for The State Press, is working for the Phoenix news bureau.

Sports Visual Journalist, Phoenix

Marlee Smith expects to graduate in December 2021 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism and a minor in organizational leadership. Smith is the social media coordinator for ASU’s School of Criminology and Criminal Justice.