Every shot was challenged. Every miss was followed by a convergence of gray-clad players on the glass.
Grand Canyon was in attack mode from the start Saturday and it carried into nearly 40 minutes of relentless defense and rebounding in a 84-71 Western Athletic Conference basketball victory over Texas-Rio Grande Valley at GCU Arena.
GCU (12-6, 2-1) had one more rebound in the first half Saturday than it did in the entire game Thursday.
With 6-foot-10 freshman Roberts Blumbergs scoring 10 points and grabbing six rebounds in the first half, the Antelopes built a 10-point lead. Blumbergs had his best game as an Antelope, doing damage in the paint as well as from the arc.
He finished with a career-high 25 points, including 11 of 13 free throws, and pulled down eight rebounds in 18 minutes. On Thursday, he didn’t play at all in the second half and had just two points in four minutes.
“I’m not taking anything for granted,” Blumbergs said. “If coach gives me the minutes, I’ll do my best to help the team win.”
Blumbergs: “I’m trying to work on my physicality and be more aggressive with the game plan, and that’s what I did.”
Richard Obert/azcentral sports
It’s been a bit of an adjustment coming over from Europe. He began the season starting, and showed promise as a good shooter from the 3-point line. But GCU coach Dan Majerle demands his players to crash the boards on every shot.
It has taken time for Blumbergs to catch up.
“I’ve been trying to work more on my physicality,” Blumbergs said. “Be more aggressive, attack the basket and basically complete the game plan.”
– After a lackluster effort against New Mexico State, Majerle put his players through an intense film study session on Friday, pointing out every nuance, every mistake, everything they need to improve on.
It appeared to pay off. But Majerle said it needs to be sustained against teams that are very good.
“I’ll be impressed if it continues to be received,” Majerle said. “Everybody feels better after a win. It’s whether they revert back to the way they played against New Mexico State or revert back, we’ll see.
“We’re going to have that rule, if you’re not doing your job rebounding, you’re going to come out. We’ll just see. UTRGV is a good team. But that’s a team we’re supposed to beat. We haven’t been able to beat the better teams.”
– Senior guard Josh Braun had his best shooting game in a while, scoring 20 points in 29 minutes. But Majerle wouldn’t say Braun is all the way back.
“He’s getting there,” Majerle said. “He’s not there yet. It’s good that he got 20 points. We’re limiting his minutes and getting the most out of his minutes.”
– In Thursday’s 70-59 loss to New Mexico State, the Antelopes were out-rebounded 50-25 and had just seven offensive boards.
They had 10 offensive rebounds in the first half Saturday.
GCU (12-6, 2-1) shot better than it did Thursday, making 41.2 percent of its shots in the first half when it built a 39-29 lead. It held UTRGV (10-9, 2-1) to 32 percent shooting and 18 rebounds.
Power forward Keonta Vernon, the only bright spot for GCU against New Mexico State with 12 points and 12 rebounds, followed it with even more grit. He had 13 points and 14 rebounds, two blocks, a steal and countless hustle plays that became infectious.
Vernon’s hard play got him into trouble with seven minutes left when he was given a technical for shoving Adonis Rwabigwi after players got tangled up under the Vaqueros’ basket.
A 69-47 lead was reduced to 69-55 with 6:40 left.
But in the end, this was more the defense that coach Dan Majerle has been accustomed to seeing this season. The Antelopes held UTRGV to 33 percent shooting, just 4 of 15 from the arc, and had a 45-31 rebound edge.
“These guys have to show up on the road, in tough games, when it’s physical. All these guys. To be honest, our bench always looks good against guys we’re supposed to beat. We need these guys to step up against New Mexico State or Illinois or Louisville, those guys.” – Majerle
GCU plays at Chicago State on Thursday and at Kansas City on Saturday next week.