‘Weathered that storm’: Despite adversity, GCU women one win away from NCAA Tournament berth

Second-year GCU coach Molly Miller has led her team to 22 victories. The Lopes take on Stephen F. Austin in the WAC title game on Saturday. (Photo by Mary Grace Grabill/Cronkite News)

Grand Canyon’s Kiyley Flowers gets in a defensive stance to help thwart Cal Baptist offensive charge in the WAC Women’s Basketball Tournament Friday. (Photo by Mary Grace Grabill/Cronkite News)

GCU’s Tiarra Brown led all scorers with 24 points in the 64-60 victory over Cal Baptist in Las Vegas. (Photo by Mary Grace Grabill/Cronkite News)

LAS VEGAS – After the final buzzer sounded Friday at Orleans Arena, the Grand Canyon University women’s basketball team found itself in an identical spot to last season: the WAC Tournament title game.

The journey to get there, however, has been significantly different.

“These kids have been through a lot,” coach Molly Miller said. “They’ve weathered that storm and I’ve been really really proud of them for that.”

After beating California Baptist 64-60 in the WAC semifinal Friday, the Lopes (22-8, 14-4) find themselves one win away from an NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament berth.

Last season, Katie Scott and Laura Piera helped lead the Lopes to the WAC title game. Scott transferred to Oral Roberts and Piera left to play in Spain.

To help replace the holes left behind on the offensive end, GCU has leaned on three transfers to help carry the load this season.

Amara Graham, a transfer from UT Rio Grande Valley averaged 13.3 points, 3.6 rebounds and 1.9 assists on her way to first-team All-WAC honors.

“This is what I came to GCU for. My last year, I wanted to win. And we’re in a good position right now,” Graham said. “We got to stay locked in and we got to be ready for tomorrow.”

Goodyear native Dominique Phillips transferred from Nevada, and has averaged 9.6 points per game. Jay McChristine transferred from Indiana State and has contributed 8.6 points per game and 6.3 rebounds per game.

After Cal Baptist outscored Grand Canyon 14-9 in the third quarter, Brown and the rest of the Lopes had to pick up the offensive pace in the fourth quarter. (Photo by Mary Grace Grabill/Cronkite News)

On Friday, it was the Lopes’ defense that helped propel them into the championship game. GCU forced 18 turnovers, and the defense helped the Lopes maintain a slim lead throughout most of the contest, despite multiple scoring droughts throughout the second half.

“We kind of imposed our will there defensively,” Miller said. “When we were on scoring droughts, we never tucked our tail.”

Graham and Tiarra Brown each had 22 points, and Kennedi Shorts added three steals on the defensive end.

It wasn’t always smooth sailing for the Lopes this season, however. After three straight losses in December, GCU was just 5-4. They rallied to win 16 of their final 20 regular season games, amassing a school Division I record 21 wins and earning the No. 2 seed in the WAC Tournament.

Next up for the Lopes is one more test, the top-seeded Stephen F. Austin Ladyjacks, who went 17-1 in conference play in the regular season.

In their first matchup, GCU led SFA 30-25 at the break before SFA pulled away in the second half.

“I think it should give us confidence, even though we lost that game, it should give us confidence that we can compete with them,” Miller said. “And if we put two halves together, like we did the first half, we can do more than compete with them.”

Through all of the change and adversity, the Lopes are right back where they were last season.

“We’re one way from our goal and that’s pretty special considering you know, kind of what a long year it’s been,” Miller said.

With a win Saturday, the Lopes would advance to their first NCAA tournament. The WAC Championship game is at 3 p.m. MST Saturday at Orleans Arena in Las Vegas.

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.