Showdown: After resilient win over Sam Houston, GCU set for rival New Mexico State

GCU forward Aidan Igiehon throws down a dunk on Sam Houston en route to a victory in the WAC Men’s Basketball Tournament. (Photo by Mary Grace Grabill/Cronkite News)

After a sluggish start, Grand Canyon was able to rally past Sam Houston, giving the GCU bench reason to celebrate. (Photo by Mary Grace Grabill/Cronkite News)

Sam Houston’s Savion Flagg hangs his head as GCU’s Holland Woods makes the final free throw of the game, ending the Bearkats’ season. (Photo by Mary Grace Grabill/Cronkite News)

LAS VEGAS – Orleans Arena was a sea of purple and white, which is not surprising considering GCU’s strong fan support. Thursday night, the Lopes were grateful for the 2,100 in attendance who helped them overcome a sluggish start.

“They bring us energy and we feed off that, like tonight,” guard Chance McMillian said. “We carried out their energy and that translated to the court. It was just fun out there.”

Ultimately, the Lopes were able to outlast Sam Houston, winning 71-66 and advancing in the WAC Man’s Basketball Tournament. And for the fourth consecutive time at this event, GCU will play New Mexico State.

Fifteen minutes into the first half, it wasn’t looking like GCU (23-7, 13-5) would be advancing to play on Friday. Sam Houston (19-14, 13-5) came out strong, taking control in the first half and jumping out to a 10-point lead.

The Lopes found a rhythm late in the first half and clamped down defensively, ending the half on an 8-0 run to pull within a point at the break.

The second half was a tight-knit affair, with neither team able to pull away. There were nine lead changes and 11 ties throughout the game, most occurring in the second half.

“Grand Canyon, you know, they were good,” Sam Houston coach Jason Hooten said. ”I think they got the best team in this league.”

GCU guard Woods, an Arizona State transfer, scored 24 points in the victory. (Photo by Mary Grace Grabill/Cronkite News)

Holland Woods II led the way with 24 points on 8-of-15 shooting, including three 3-pointers. McMillian added three long balls of his own, with the two accounting for six of the Lopes nine 3-pointers.

“They’re competitors, and I thought Sam Houston really defended them well,” GCU coach Bryce Drew said. “Really proud of their competitiveness and how they found ways to deal with scoring.”

Next up for the Lopes is a familiar foe: the top-seeded Aggies. GCU and New Mexico State (24-6, 14-4) have met in the final in three consecutive WAC tournaments, and now they will meet for a fourth straight time in a semifinal matchup.

New Mexico State won the first two finals that featured these teams (2018 and 2019), but GCU was able to top the Aggies in 2021. In 2020, the WAC tournament was canceled because of COVID-19.

Although the Lopes went 3-0 against the Aggies last season (including the WAC final), it was New Mexico State getting the better of the Lopes in the regular season this year. The Aggies swept GCU, including a dominant 82-66 win in Phoenix on Feb. 19.

“We’re excited to play them, they’re an excellent team, they’ve had an excellent season,” Drew said. “We’re going to try to do what we did and just try to do it better and hopefully get better results.”

The Aggies will come in fresh, as they have not played a game since Saturday, against Utah Valley, but they did lose two of their last three regular season games.

With GCU fans already in Vegas, it is expected that New Mexico State fans will also make the trip from Las Cruces, setting up a thrilling atmosphere and environment at Orleans Arena on at 7 p.m. (MST) Friday. The winner will play Saturday for an NCAA Tournament automatic berth.

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.

Mary Grace Grabill meh-ree grays grey-bull (she/her)
Sports Digital Producer, Phoenix

Mary Grace Grabill expects to graduate in May 2023 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a minor in film production. Grabill has interned as a photographer with McGaw YMCA Camp Echo and Phoenix Magazine.