Mar 10, 2018; Las Vegas, NV, USA; Grand Canyon Antelopes forward Keonta Vernon (24) shoots the ball past New Mexico State Aggies forward JemerrioÊJones (10) during the first half of the WAC Basketball Championship at Orleans Arena. Mandatory Credit: Daniel Clark-USA TODAY Sports(Photo: Daniel Clark, Daniel Clark-USA TODAY Sports)CONNECTTWEETLINKEDIN 1 COMMENTEMAILMORE
LAS VEGAS – Keonta Vernon tried to will history. Casey Benson tried to give his last college chapter a heroic ending. Freshman Alessandro Lever tried to take over late.
But, in the end, it was the school that has owned the Western Athletic Conference that wouldn't let No. 3-seed Grand Canyon have its breakthrough moment.
Top-seed New Mexico State refused to welt to GCU's relentless pressure and powered its way into the NCAA Tournament on Saturday night with a 72-58 victory for the WAC basketball tourney title at Orleans Arena.
GCU (22-11) was trying to become just the third school in its first year of Division I eligibility to qualify for the NCAA Tournament since the field expanded to 64 teams in 1985.
But the Aggies know how to finish halves. They closed the first half with a 19-4 run in the final four minutes.
After a Benson drive that also got him a free throw for a three-point play, Vernon blocked a shot that ignited a Lever 3-point play. The few hundred Havocs behind the GCU basket erupted in cheers, their team down just 60-54 with 4:23 to play.
But that hope ended quickly.
The Aggies did it with their own nasty brand of defense, with guard A.J. Harris stripping the ball and scoring, with Zach Lofton scoring off the dribble, with Jemerrio Jones pulling down almost every rebounds in sight.
"They strip balls, they fly around, they're very athletic," coach Dan Majerle said. "They're there for a reason. Defense is a big reason for that. We kept battling. We took some tough shots. We made some of them. You've got to give them credit. They played a great defensive game and took us out of a lot of stuff we wanted to do."
GCU coach Dan Majerle on the culture created and how he intends to come back and keep building from it
Vernon's mom was in the middle of the GCU student Havocs, dancing with 500 or so who made the trip to see if history could be made.
Vernon had 15 of his team's first 30 points and finished with 17. The offense doesn't usually go through the senior forward, who created the tough culture Majerle wanted.
Most of the 6-foot-10 freshman Lever's 19 points came after GCU got down by 11 at halftime.
A day after grabbing a single-game WAC tournament record 22 rebounds against Seattle, Jones had 18 rebounds against GCU, setting a three-game tourney record with 54 boards.
Lofton had 21 points and Harris 20.
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As the game was ticking down, Majerle embraced an emotional Benson, who was trying to finish his college career by helping the Antelopes reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time. But there were no nets to cut down.
Benson was the home-town star who led Tempe Corona del Sol to three consecutive state championships, then played three years at Oregon, helping the Ducks reach the Final Four last year.
"We put a lot of pressure on Casey, and I thought he handled it terrific," Majerle said. "As the year progressed, he got better and better. We asked him to do a lot of things he didn't do at Oregon. And he started to do it. You could see the emotion in his face. He wanted to lead this program in his final year to the NCAAs. I think that caught up with him at the end, that his college career was over. This kid has been a winner throughout his life. I know this is tough on him.
"We fell short of our goal, but Casey is one of the greatest kids, a competitor and a winner."
GCU isn't counting on an invitation to the NIT. Maybe one of the lower national tournaments could come calling.
Majerle left it open about playing in one, which he said would be primarily for the young players to build toward next year.img itemprop="url" src="https://www.gannett-cdn.com/-mm-/3f65afd37eef6e0120127acb2802dc634405aa25/c=179-0-2665-1869&r=x408&c=540x405/local/-/media/2018/03/10/Phoenix/Phoenix/636563227399504483-USATSI-10694959.jpg" alt="Mar 10, 2018; Las Vegas, NV, USA; Grand Canyon Antelopes" width="540" height="405" data-mycapture-src="https://www.gannett-cdn.com/media/2018/03/10/Phoenix/Phoenix/636563227399504483-USATSI-10694959.jpg" data-mycapture-sm-src="https://www.gannett-cdn.com/-mm-/4044b1e7645488621f157de466cf1a990870caa2/r=500x333/local/-/media/2018/03/10/Phoenix/Phoenix/636563227399504483-USATSI-10694959.jpg"">>
Mar 10, 2018; Las Vegas, NV, USA; Grand Canyon Antelopes fans cheer prior to the WAC Basketball Championship against the New Mexico State Aggies at Orleans Arena. Mandatory Credit: Daniel Clark-USA TODAY Sports (Photo: Daniel Clark, Daniel Clark-USA TODAY Sports)
Lever, who rescued GCU from an early, 18-point quarterfinal hole to Missouri-Kansas City with 29 points, was speechless when asked a question about his future after the game.
Majerle finally answered for him.
"They know what's expected out of them," Majerle said. "Keonta did a great job building the culture. Josh (Braun) is a great culture guy. Now it's up to Alessandro and the rest of the guys to continue that.
"We know we're expected to win the WAC. We expect to win the tournament. We expect to go to the NCAAs. We expect to be a Top 25 team. If we don't expect it, then I'm not going to be here. And those guys understand it. Is that a lofty goal? Of course it is. But that's just the way it is. So this was a great step."
GCU won 20-plus game in each of the last three seasons. Majerle has never lowered goals since the first day he showed up five years ago.
"I recruit guys knowing I expect a lot out of them," Majerle said. "And I ain't stopping. And they know I'm not stopping. So I'm going to get guys like Alessandro and we're going to keep going on the backs of a guy like Keonta, who brought it every day at practice, who never missed a day of practice. And Alessandro is going to be front and center for the next three years."
Source : https://www.azcentral.com/story/sports/college/gcu/2018/03/10/grand-canyon-basketball-runs-out-magic-late-quest-reach-ncaa-tournament/414350002/1505