GCU men punch ticket into NCAA Tournament after winning WAC Championship bout over UT Arlington

GCU sophomore forward Duke Brennan celebrates in confetti after the Lopes’ 89-74 win in the 2024 WAC Tournament championship against UT Arlington at Orleans Arena in Las Vegas. (Photo by Dominic Contini/Cronkite News)

GCU men’s basketball coach Bryce Drew cuts down the net after sending GCU to the NCAA Tournament for the third time in school history. (Photo by Dominic Contini/Cronkite News)

GCU teammates Malcom Flaggs and Gabe McGlothan embrace each other moments before the buzzer sounds in the Lopes’ victory. (Photo by Dominic Contini/Cronkite News)

GCU junior guard Collin Moore, right, smiles next to UT Arlington’s Shemar Wilson, of Avondale, after a big dunk during the Lopes’ victory. (Photo by Dominic Contini/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX – Since gaining Division I status and joining the Western Athletic Conference in 2013, Grand Canyon University has steadily climbed the ranks to one of the WAC’s best.

When New Mexico State left to join Conference USA starting this season, questions followed about who would take over the top spot, with the Aggies winning the WAC men’s basketball tournament and a spot in the NCAA Tournament eight out of their final 12 years in the conference. The Aggies rarely were able to create success in the “Big Dance” during this stretch, only making it into the second round once in 2022, yet remained a giant obstacle few teams in the WAC were able to solve.

On Saturday night, in a purple-filled Orleans Arena in Las Vegas, the Antelopes showed there’s a new obstacle in town, as they won their second-consecutive WAC tournament and their third all-time in a physical 89-74 win over No. 3 UT Arlington (20-14 overall, 13-7 WAC).

“This one means a little bit more, I think because we have so many new guys that have just grown together in nine months so quick and we’ve come for one common goal,” coach Bryce Drew said about his third trip to the NCAA Tournament with GCU.

Throughout the regular season, the Lopes appeared to be the team to replace the Aggies at the top. With a veteran roster and key players transferring in, it seemed that the stars were aligning for GCU. The Lopes sat atop the conference standings at 17-3 and broke their Division I record for winning percentage and wins in a season before the WAC Championship game even began.

And yet, there was a cautious optimism around the team and fans entering the weekend with No. 2 Tarleton State building up steam while GCU stuttered near the end, dropping two games in late February to Tarleton and Abilene Christian.

During its semifinal on Friday night, the Lopes were able to squeak by No. 4 Seattle U after a second-half push that secured them the momentum late in the contest.

Saturday’s victory over UT Arlington books the Lopes’ third appearance in the NCAA Tournament – they also went in 2021 and 2023 – as the team seeks its first ever win in the tournament after losing to Iowa in 2021 (86-74) and Gonzaga in 2023 (82-70)

Ticket punched. GCU players celebrate after their 89-74 WAC Tournament win that gives them an automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament. (Photo by Dominic Contini/Cronkite News)

Even though it was not the cleanest game from GCU during its record-breaking season, Drew and WAC Player of the Year Tyon Grant-Foster gave veteran Jovan Blacksher Jr. his flowers after his gritty performance.

“He led and played with his heart tonight,” Drew said. “He played probably his best game of the year today.”

Grant Foster said, “He’s one of our engines and he got me going.”

Blacksher Jr. is one of two players on GCU that has been on both previous WAC Championship teams, alongside forward Gabe McGlothan, and has stepped into a bench role after averaging over 30 minutes a game from 2020-22. That didn’t shake Blacksher Jr., as he has consistently been a reliable option for Drew off the bench, especially on Saturday night, playing 21 minutes of intoxicating defense and scoring 14 points.

Drew also found success from the bench in senior forward Lok Wur, who finished the game with 16 points and was 6-for-6 from the free throw line.

Grant-Foster was named 2024 WAC Tournament Most Outstanding Player after leading the Lopes Saturday night with 22 points, nine rebounds and three steals. The DePaul transfer was grateful for the chance to play in the NCAA Tournament after not playing in the 2022-23 season after undergoing two heart surgeries due to collapsing after a game with DePaul in the 2021-22 season.

After winning his first conference championship of his collegiate career, Grant-Foster was emotional talking about what he was feeling in the moment.

“That was my very first time with the confetti and the nets and everything, so it was one of the best moments of my life,” Grant-Foster said.

The game was a physical bout the entire night, with over 50 fouls combined. It fell right into GCU’s strength of pushing the paint consistently and getting to the charity stripe. This gave the Lopes a crucial edge, completing 34-of-46 free throw attempts compared to only 14 points from the free-throw line for the Mavericks.

The GCU student section showed up for their team’s second WAC Tournament title in a row. The Lopes always have a strong fan showing. (Photo by Dominic Contini/Cronkite News)

Near the end of the game, things got chippy as guard Ray Harrison’s windmill dunk put the icing on the cake for the Lopes to increase the lead to 12 with three seconds remaining. The UT Arlington players and staff did not appreciate Harrison’s finishing move, with Phillip Russell bumping into him as Russell made his way back, and Akili Vining throwing the basketball at Russell shortly after.

Both benches cleared, with Drew urging his players to quickly return to their seats to avoid a confrontation, with no blows exchanged at the end of it. The sequence resulted in an additional time to review the play to address the correct fouls, with officials ejecting one player from each team with 2.9 seconds remaining.

UT Arlington coach K.T. Turner later shook hands with Drew and his staff, with Drew returning the gesture to the Mavericks sideline near the end of the play’s review. When asked postgame about the situation, Turner didn’t have much issue with Harrison’s dunk.

“He’s allowed to go dunk the ball. There’s still time on the clock,” Turner said.

Drew reminisced about his journey in the Valley over the last four years and what it has turned into during his short tenure.

“Four years ago when I came and (was) blessed to get offered the job, we talked a lot about what this place could be and what it would look like,” Drew said.

“I think four years later, looking at the crowd, looking at our team, some of that vision you know, is happening right now and it’s so fun to be part of the process and just really thankful to our school, thankful to our guys for all of the work and support for our program to be where it’s at.”

This will be Drew’s sixth appearance in March Madness and his third in four seasons with Grand Canyon, after leading Valparaiso to two appearances in 2013 and 2015, as well as Vanderbilt in 2017. Drew is currently 0-5 in his coaching career in the NCAA Tournament however, with his closest loss in 2017 with Valparaiso when it lost to No. 9 Northwestern 68-66 in Salt Lake City.

The GCU faithful hope that this is the year that the Lopes are finally able to taste success in the NCAA Tournament, with their best record in Division I program history and an experienced roster of talent. ESPN’s Joe Lunardi projected Saturday night that Grand Canyon will be a No. 12 seed in the tournament, with the potential of moving up to a No. 11 seed depending on other outcomes Sunday morning and afternoon.

Amid all of the stress and commotion about their return to the sport’s biggest stage, Drew is grateful the Lopes are following script.

“The main common goal as a team was to get to the tournament and then have chances to hopefully win (NCAA Tournament) games,” he said

Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Jesse Brawders expects to graduate in May 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism and a minor in educational studies. Brawders is a freelance esports commentator.

Sports Digital Producer, Phoenix

Dominic Contini expects to graduate in May 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism and minor in digital audiences. Contini aspires to be a content creator and has interned for the social media teams of ESPN, Sports Illustrated, Sporting News, Fiesta Bowl, Arizona Super Bowl Host Committee and Arizona State Athletics.