DENVER – After a sluggish start in its first round NCAA tournament game, No. 14 seed Grand Canyon found life.
The Lopes made shots, stopped third-seeded Gonzaga’s complete offense and gave hope for fans of March upsets – including GCU’s own rowdy student section – yearning for another monumental result.
Then, Gonzaga stepped on the gas and did what elite programs typically do in March.
The Bulldogs found their touch late in the first half Friday and rarely lost it to knock GCU out of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament 82-70 and advance to take on TCU Sunday.
GCU did find moments of brilliance, though. After an opening 7-0 run from Gonzaga, the Lopes embarked on a 23-10 stretch to take a six-point lead. The Bulldogs could not make a basket while GCU momentarily found lanes through Gonzaga’s tough interior defense.
“I thought GCU came out and played with great pace and purpose, got the ball where they wanted to, stepped up (and) made shots,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said.
The run exemplified the team’s personality over the entire season.
“We’ve been built into a resilient team, so we’re going to go play our basketball, resilient basketball, and leave it all out there,” GCU junior forward Gabe McGlothan said Thursday.
Though the Lopes did not pick up a historic upset Friday, just competing in Denver against a power like Gonzaga marked a major step toward becoming a perennial mid-major program.
GCU’s second NCAA tournament appearance in three seasons came after a four-game run as the No. 5 seed in the WAC tournament last week, capped by an impressive 84-66 win over No. 3 seed Southern Utah in the final.
This tournament appearance felt a lot different than its first with 2021 defined by a bubble environment in Indiana. A small, impressive contingent of Lopes fans made the journey to Indiana two years ago. However, it was nothing like the turnout Friday night.
GCU students filled half of a section across from the basket by the Lopes bench with even more students in the section right next to it. Each loud roar from the students felt louder, particularly early in the half after GCU responded well to Gonzaga’s first run.
They provided most of the spark in an atmosphere filled with many neutral fans as well as fans waiting on the TCU-Arizona State matchup the followed.
“They make it feel like home,” said McGlothan, who finished with 11 points Friday. “When you hit shots and you go on some runs, you hear them right behind you. They have your backs.”
Given discussion going into the week of Gonzaga being the vision for mid-major programs like GCU, postgame compliments from the Bulldogs made GCU’s signature student section look even better.
“Their fans did show out, and major respect to them,” Gonzaga senior forward Anton Watson said. “Kind of reminds me of our fans, traveling (and) showing up to our games.”
GCU coach Bryce Drew said strong internal support is part of the reason why traditions like the GCU student section have become a part of a prospering program.
“We have a great school administration that really supports basketball,” Drew said. “Our fans, you saw them today, are second to none. So, we want to go out and perform at the highest level that we can.”
That level in recent years has been on an upward trend, whether through a WAC regular season championship like 2021 or great March runs to earn the conference tournament title like this year in addition to 2021. In the years to come, it could be even better.
The Lopes have an opportunity to become the perennial program in the WAC with New Mexico State and Sam Houston entering Conference USA next season.
Should GCU become dominant in its conference, the next step for the Lopes is to break through and get its first NCAA tournament win. Drew said just playing Friday will help the program in that process.
“The experience that these guys gained in this NCAA tournament playing against a program like Gonzaga is only going to make us better for the future,” Drew said. “All five starters returned … and this is how you build a great program by having younger guys that play well, get to the NCAA tournament, get a taste of it and hopefully you return and you make a splash the next time you get in.”
On this day, however, the NCAA tournament Cinderella slipper was not meant to be for the Lopes.
Gonzaga found its shooting touch late in the first half and its offense returned to its efficient self, making seven of its last nine shots of the half. Most of them came on inside jumpers and layups, particularly from junior guard Julian Strawther as part of a 28-point performance.
GCU kept up late in the first half, but saw its lead evaporate completely and turn into a four-point halftime deficit at halftime.
The second half saw much of the same from Gonzaga. After a slight three-shot cold streak right out of halftime, the Bulldogs made 10 of their next 13 shots over a ten-minute stretch through electrifying offense.
GCU, meanwhile, got cold. That led to the Bulldogs going on a 16-0 run that killed any hope of the major upset.
Sophomore guard Ray Harrison, who finished with a GCU-leading 20 points, said Gonzaga stepped up its physicality.
“I feel like they were very active on the offensive glass, and we didn’t have an answer at that time,” he said.
When GCU did get shots to go down, Gonzaga’s response was swift, prompting the game to go into cruise control throughout the second half.
It wasn’t the outcome GCU fans wanted. But they left feeling encouraged about the future.