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WAC Championship Preview: Grand Canyon can become new face of the conference with win

Lope Nation is taking over WAC Vegas, but can Southern Utah Spoil their fun in the championship game?

Syndication: Arizona Republic
The GCU fans have made their presence known in Vegas as the Lopes look to punch their ticket to the Big Dance.
Patrick Breen/The Republic / USA TODAY NETWORK

The WAC is simply nuts. No matter who the teams are, it craziness.

But the conference needs a new face of that said craziness with New Mexico State leaving the conference. The WAC Tournament feels different without the Aggies in it. It’s just another step of the countless realignment moves we have seen over the past two decades.

This one is sort of a big one. New Mexico State, who ruled the WAC over the past decade, is leaving. A year ago, they won the conference, advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament and took Arkansas down to the wire in the second round. New Mexico State’s last season in the WAC before heading to Conference USA was full of turmoil and scandal.

Additionally, No. 1 seed Sam Houston is going to the Conference USA as well.

One of the remaining programs is going to have to fill that void.

What has this tournament brought us with no New Mexico State? It’s honestly been pretty damn good. The teams in the championship game are more than capable of filling the void New Mexico State is going to leave. Grand Canyon faces off against Southern Utah in the WAC Title game Saturday night at 11:30 p.m. ET. Let’s break it down.

If you walked into Orleans Arena at any moment Friday afternoon you encountered tons of people wearing purple. GCU fans packed the house for the women’s game and brought even more for the men’s semifinal. It seemed like everywhere you looked, there were Lopes fans. Lopes fans took over the Orleans Hotel in the same way Aggies fans claimed it was their second home. There has been a lot of hype and talk about the GCU fan base,

This time their trash talk matched their bite. For home games, the Lopes fill half of GCU Arena with students and make season tickets affordable, which helps to ensure having sell outs on W. Camelback Ave. It takes commitment from alumni to make the five-hour drive and pay weekend Vegas hotel prices to see GCU play. But they showed up and made Orleans Arena feel like a home game.

The fans played a their part. Sam Houston missed four free throws in the final minute with a chance to win the game. The crowd was buzzing. Lopes fans were jumping when Kobe Knox hit his first three triples and were relentless from there.

“They showed they are the best fans in the country,” Knox said. “It really put a lot a pressure on Sam Houston and gave us energy in major stretches.”

Having a home-court feel in neutral conference tournament games is huge. GCU fans invaded Orleans Arena the same way Arizona travels to Pac-12 Tournament, how Kansas packs the Big 12 Tournament, like Gonzaga at the WCC Tournament. For a small mid-major conference, it is really huge.

The Lopes definitely came out with energy to start. Behind Knox’s hot shooting, GCU started on a 12-4.

But Sam Houston came storming back. Qua Grant had 24 points for the Bearkats and kept them in the ball game. Sam Houston ended the half on a 13-3 run and GCU was down 42-36 at the half despite shooting 60% from three.

In the second half, GCU switched up its defense and went to a box and one. Sam Houston’s offense fell off, and the Lopes continued to get hot shooting from Knox who finished with a game-high 21, Noah Baumann and Chance McMillian each had 17.

GCU won despite getting season low performances from top scorers Ray Harrison and Gabe McGlothan. The Lopes had to play in the final minute without Harrison, who fouled out.

It’s been an up-and-down year for the Lopes. They lost WAC Preseason Player of the Year Jovan Blacksher Jr. early in the conference schedule.

Bryce Drew was proud how his guys have developed and flourished in new roles throughout the year. McMillian was thrusted into the point guard role mid-season. He delivered 17 points and five assists in the semifinal win over Sam Houston.

GCU had guys step up in the biggest moments all year. McGlothan scored 35 to lead a late rally against Seattle in the quarterfinals. Now the Lopes find themselves with their fourth WAC Tournament final with a chance to make their second NCAA Tournament.

A month ago, people may have written the Lopes off after they suffered a home loss to UT Rio Grande Valley. Now they are one win away from dancing and cementing themselves as the top program in the WAC.

On the other side, Southern Utah is the new kid on the block. The Thunderbirds had a hell of a debut in the WAC. They finished third in the conference going 12-6 and winning 22 games overall. They enter the WAC tournament final in dramatic fashion after beating Utah Valley on a four-point play.

Coaches are going to think twice now about fouling up three. Southern Utah trailed 75-58 with 6:42 left and scored 31 points in the final six minutes. Tevian Jones, who hit that game-winning four-point play, is a true impact star who averages 17.4 points per game.

In the quarterfinal, Southern Utah survived another one-point thriller against in-state rival Utah Tech. The Thunderbirds have a chance to make a mighty first impression. They are looking to make their first NCAA Tournament since 2001. That season they almost upset Boston College.

Grand Canyon has a chance to fill its destiny of becoming the new staple program of the WAC. However, the new kids on the block are going to try to stop them.

Look for Lope Nation to pack Orleans Arena in what is going to be a crazy environment. The WAC title game is going to be a fun one, and it’s going to be worth losing sleep over. Will we see the Lopes fans go bananas over their second NCAA Tournament berth or will the Thunderbirds claim the spot as king of the hill on their first try?