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WAC Tournament Championship Preview: Grand Canyon gets its shot at New Mexico State

It’s all on the line in Las Vegas.

NCAA Basketball: New Mexico State at Kansas Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

In early February, Dan Majerle had some thoughts about his team. Grand Canyon had run out to a 7-1 WAC start, felled only by a last second heave at New Mexico State, and the Lopes coach indulged in a minute of — admittedly, qualified — candor.

“If I was being honest with everybody, I think this is the first year that I thought we were the best team in the league. Now, we still have to go out and prove it. There’s a long way to go. But our guys believe it. I believe it. And they’re not settling.”

Reasonable as it seemed at the time, GCU decidedly did not look like the WAC’s best team down the stretch. The Lopes closed the league season at 3-5, and entered the tournament as the No. 3 seed, putting two teams that had recently beat them (Seattle, Utah Valley) on their most likely path to the final. After a pair of close wins, the Lopes are back on the front foot, though now face the league’s stiffest test: a date with 29-win New Mexico State in the championship.

Here’s a rundown of the second consecutive meeting between these two programs in the final game at the Orleans Arena.

How they got here

New Mexico State. The Aggies cruised in their opener against Chicago State, and then breezed through the first 25-odd minutes against fourth-seeded UT Rio Grande Valley. From there things tightened up, as the Vaqueros unleashed a furious comeback to cut a 19-point second half deficit to just three. A.J. Harris and Terrell Brown helped stabilize NMSU down the stretch with some key three’s, calming down a game that was being played at UTRGV’s frenetic pace. In the end, the Aggies picked up a 79-72 win over a quality opponent that finished the season with 19 wins.

Grand Canyon. The Lopes most recent games coming into the WAC Tournament were a blowout loss at Utah Valley on March 7, and an overtime loss at Seattle on March 9. The bracket pitted the Lopes against the Redhawks right away, with a likely date with surging UVU in the semifinal. The Lopes absolved both of those losses, and on Friday kept league POY Jake Toolson quiet (3-11 FG), while Carlos Johnson exploded (career-high 35 points), to scrape past the Wolverines with a 78-74 win.

What’s at stake

New Mexico State. The Aggies’ dominant regular season (15-1) has seemed destined to end in their eighth NCAA Tournament bid in the last 10 seasons. They’ll take an 18-game winning streak into the final, looking to earn that bid against a team they have have had little problem with — at least in terms of results — over their history. To that end, Chris Jans is 5-0 against them during his blazing run in Las Cruces.

Grand Canyon. The pot at the end of the rainbow. The Lopes dream big and did get their shot at the biggest prize of all last season, their first being eligible for the NCAA Tournament. The GCU plan cannot take its next step without the coveted bid, but fittingly, must yet again get past the WAC’s established power to get there.

Recent history

  • Jan. 10, 77-75 NMSU win in Las Cruces: GCU stages a dramatic comeback in the final minute, forcing several NMSU turnovers to take a lead after the game had appeared over. Johnny McCants then sinks the Lopes on one of the most memorable shots in Pan Am history.
  • Feb. 9, 67-64 NMSU win in Phoenix: After being held in check, Terrell Brown (12 points) opens up a game that had been close throughout in the final few minutes. The Aggies hang on for yet another close win over GCU.

The keys

New Mexico State wins if: The big men shine. Against the Vaqueros, it was the backcourt coming to the rescue in a game that had become guard heavy due to the Vaqueros pressure. Against GCU, it’s the big men that may play the starring role offensively. GCU does a lot of things well defensively, but doesn’t have a rim protecting post defender capable of constantly bodying up with Eli Chuha and Ivan Aurrecoechea. You never know which Aggie will take a starring role, but it’s a safe bet those two will have big games if the Aggies are dancing yet again.

Grand Canyon wins if: Carlos Johnson continues sky rocketing. The burly, explosive guard becomes borderline unstoppable when teams need to respect his outside shot, and that’s exactly where things are trending right now. Johnson has averaged 33 points per game over the two wins in Las Vegas, shooting 10-for-16 from three in the process. The Lopes were somewhat of a one-man show against UVU offensively, and will need more than Johnson just to beat the Aggies. But a big performance from him, paired with their length on defense — even without Gerard Martin — could propel them to their first NCAA bid.