GLENDALE — The dry, desert wind knifed through the air as I took my seat in a golf cart, which was puttering outside of GCU Arena. As an outsider — a Tucsonan born unto University of Arizona alumni, a Pepperdine student and a mere Big West blogger by trade — I was unprepared physically, mentally and spiritually for Thursday night’s game.
Before Grand Canyon’s 86-56 obliteration of Longwood, I hadn’t experienced the great cloud of witnesses. I hadn’t taken a seat at the Lopes’ Media Table. My eyes hadn’t graced the purple-clad congregation, complete with eyes agape, words of praise on their tongues, and hands — nay, Lopes — heavenward.
For unto us, basketball was bestowed.
For unto us, a game was given.
And the game would rest on Dan Majerle’s broad shoulders…
This place is a zoo, I thought as I shuffled my feet into the packed narthex of GCU Arena. Lines of Lope fanatics milled forward, ready and willing to receive festive, long-sleeved, GCU shirts. Having not yet prepared my heart and spirit for tonight’s service, I turned down their generous offering.
(For the record, the staff said I could claim my shirt at halftime.)
Upon entering the heart of GCU Arena, I couldn’t help but bask at its grandeur. After the ushers guided me to my seat amongst the scribes, I turned my text to StatBroadcast, Tweetdeck and KenPom, foolishly leaning on my own understanding to prepare me for the ensuing spectacle.
My modicum of earthly, basketball knowledge was a mustard seed compared to the visions I witnessed.
My untrained eyes were used to covering Big West games, attending the vacant pews of Firestone Fieldhouse, or — heaven forbid — attending games at nearby McKale Center and Wells Fargo Arena. Nevertheless, the wonders inside GCU Arena were unlike anything I had seen at a mid-major game, namely:
- The First Wonder: Crowds
- The Second: A fog machine
- Third: A full-fledged band
- Fourth: GCU’s in-house television network
- Fifth: Pregame festivities, including multiple bouncy castles
- Sixth: stations with prospective student enrollment cards and brochures to be filled out with tiny, wooden pencils
- Seventh: media boards encouraging social media engagement amongst the masses
- Eighth: Throngs of children willingly watching mid-major basketball
- Ninth: Dan Majerle looking like a snack
- Tenth: A basketball-centric dance party of biblical proportions
And lo, the campus wifi sputtered. A higher power wanted our attention. Booming over the clamoring arena, the announcer’s voice beckoned a freshman cheerleader to center court to give the pregame prayer.
The congregation fell silent, then bowed their heads.
Dear God, thank you for giving us the gift of basketball. I pray that you will place your hand of protection over the players tonight. And most importantly, please help us remember that we play for You tonight. In Jesus’ name I pray, amen.
With a hearty, collective “amen,” the GCU faithful lifted their eyes to the court. The announcer beckoned the congregation to remain standing until their beloved Lopes scored a basket. Moments later, the players convened at mid-court. As one of the referees tossed the ball into the air, the crowd’s excitement reached a fever pitch.
And it came to pass that Oscar Frayer’s layup caused the congregation to sit 14 seconds into the game.
And it came to pass that Longwood’s sole lead was 3-2. It lasted 15 seconds.
And it came to pass that the crowd didn’t think less of Longwood because of its low KenPom ranking. The revelers remained fervent to their “air-ball” chants, enthusiastic high-fives and armchair coaching as their beloved Antelopes imposed their will on the game.
And it came to pass that the Lopes hung a 24-point lead on the nation’s sixth-worst team midway through the first half. It also came to pass that the Lopes scored without ceasing; they led 44-20 at half and led by as many as 35 points.
And it came to pass that Longwood struggled in all facets of the game by shooting 42 percent from the field, being out-rebounded 26-42 and notching a 5:16 assist-to-turnover ratio.
And it came to pass that Casey Benson proved to be the facilitator the Lopes needed as of late. The graduate transfer from Oregon was adept at creating his own shot, leading his fellow men and facilitating Grand Canyon’s offense.
And it came to pass that Frayer was the most impressive player on both ends of the floor. Behold, the sophomore baptized a Longwood Lancer not once...
Keonta Vernon with the spin move and Oscar Frayer with the put back slam! pic.twitter.com/U7rWurzAUE— YurView Arizona (@YurView_AZ) December 22, 2017
...but nearly twice:
And it came to pass that the Lancers had no answer for the Antelopes’ physicality on either end of the floor.
And yea, just as the prophet Samuel reminded the Israelites to look at the heart in lieu of stature or outward appearance, the most important player of the game was Alessandro Lever. Although his statline wasn’t as gaudy as those of his fellow Lopes, the 6’10” freshman’s ability to hit threes, rebound and protect the rim was invaluable.
And it came to pass that the congregation stayed for the entirety of the service, in spite of their GCU basketball cups running over.
This is what a GCU crowd looks like when their team is up 29 on Longwood with under 4 minutes to play: pic.twitter.com/oIrTXRRrRK— Kyle Cajero (@kylecajero) December 22, 2017
The Lopes gave thanks to the Lord, for He was good. His abundant grace was present for both teams, as 21 of the 23 players scored, and all 23 who saw the floor recorded a meaningful stat. Chief among those was Fifi Aidoo, whose 14 points off the bench elevated the Antelopes’ offense to new heights early in the first half.
There is a time for everything — including a season for reveling. As the crowds trickled out of GCU arena and into the crisp, December night, the season of gratefulness and joy was nigh. Dwelling on the Lopes’ soft, home-heavy non-conference slate; the looming WAC giants from Las Cruces, Orem and Bakersfield; and the whims of the basketball powers-that-be would be for a different time.
For now, the Lopes would give thanks for not only their 9-3 record, but also the opportunity to improve their record against (an FBI sanctions-depleted) Louisville on Saturday.
As for this onetime unbeliever, my soul’s Lope was not merely lifted up.
It was heavenward.