LAS VEGAS, Nev. – What better way to announce your presence as a relative Division I newcomer than by knocking off the perennial top team in your conference. The Grand Canyon men’s basketball team had the chance to do just that but wasn’t quite up to the challenge and suffered a 89-57 loss in the Western Athletic Conference championship game on Saturday at Orleans Arena.
It marked the seventh WAC tournament title in the last eight years for the Aggies, the lone team interrupting their dominance being Cal-State Bakersfield which won in 2016.
New Mexico State (25-8) has been the regular season winner in four of the last five seasons.
This marked a rematch of last year’s title game, also won by the Aggies 72-58 in what was Grand Canyon’s first season as a playoff eligible school.
There were no indications that the showdown would be that lopsided however. Both regular season meetings were decided in the closing seconds. New Mexico State won the first 77-75, only because sophomore Johnny McCants heaved in a short from halfcourt at the buzzer.
The second was equally as competitive with the conference power winning 67-64.
Coach Dan Majerle is proud of his team’s resilience. The Lopes (20-13) finished the regular season with back-to-back losses to Seattle University (83-76 in overtime) and Utah Valley (82-76) but avenged both those losses in the WAC tournament, beating No. 6 Seattle on Thursday and No. 2 Utah Valley on Friday.
It all came down to depth as New Mexico State got 50 points from its bench. Majerle used eight players but six got the majority of the minutes. Playing three games in as many days caught up to the Lopes. Among the missing players was senior Gerard Martin, GCU’s top defensive player who has been out with a knee injury.
“We just ran out of gas,” Majerle said. “One of their strengths is their depth and we knew that coming in so I was concerned about that. It’s hard to keep up when the other team is running guys in and out.”
New Mexico players didn’t disagree with Majerle’s assessment and said pushing the pace against the undermanned foe was part of the plan.
“We’re all gas, no brakes,” said MVP Trevelin McQueen.
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The game started getting away from the Lopes late in the first half. It was 21-all before the Aggies went on a 11-4 run, taking a 32-35 lead on a 3-pointer by Clayton Henry.
Grand Canyon made only two of its last 12 shots from the field and trailed 41-30 at the intermission.
It didn’t get any better for the upstart in the second half. The Lopes were within single digits for the last time, down 49-40 with 16:10 left but New Mexico State reeled off 17 of the next 22 points to turn the contest into a blowout.
Grand Canyon shot just 38.3 percent (23 for 60) and got a team-high 17 points from Alessandro Lever. Carlos Johnson, who had a career-high 35 a night earlier, was held to nine but represented the Lopes on the All-Tournament team.
“We gave it our best, we just didn’t have it tonight,” ever said.
New Mexico State shot 50.8 percent (33 for 65), led by Queen who had 27 points and Ivan Aurrecoechea with 16, both coming off the bench. It hit 17 of 39 3-pointer tries, six of those from McQueen, a transfer from New Mexico Military Institute. The Aggies did everything better finishing with a sizable 47-28 advantage on the boards. They also racked up 18 assist while GCU managed just seven.
The crowd of 3.598 was the best for a tournament final since 2011 Majerle appreciated the following both schools brought with them.
“Both schools have tremendous followings. That’s what college basketball is all about,” he said,
Majerle emphasized the loss doesn’t take away from all that has been accomplished in a short time. He rounded out his sixth year at the helm, taking over as the Lopes started the transition from Division II.
“Our expectations are high so yes we’re disappointed,” he said. “But at the same time we have to remember we’re still in our infant stages.”
New Mexico State will await word of its playoff destination which will come on Sunday. The Aggies will be the lone qualifier from the conference.