Grand Canyon Falls One Game Short of NCAA Tournament after 72-58 loss to New Mexico State

The GCU Lopes were one win away from advancing to their first ever NCAA tournament but fell short in a 72-58 loss to the New Mexico State Aggies.

The top-seeded Aggies won their fifth straight Western Athletic Conference Tournament and the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.

NMSU (28-5) defeated GCU (22-11) for the third time this season but the Lopes didn’t go down without a fight.

Keonta Vernon got off to a hot start scoring the Lopes first 7 points while the Aggies missed eight of their first 11 shots but GCU ran into a cold spell midway through the first half that kept the game close.

Then Vernon scored a couple more points giving the Lopes their largest lead of the game at 16-12. GCU came out strong on the defensive end as well forcing NMSU to miss 10 of 11 shots. Graduate transfer Zach Lofton, averaging nearly 20 points per game on the year, started out the game 0-5.

That’s when the Aggies started to find their groove offensively by going on a 22-6 run, sparked by Lofton who hit two of NMSU’s four 3-pointers to give the Aggies a 33-22 halftime lead.

Coming out of the half, NMSU picked up right where it left off by drilling a three-pointer but the Lopes started to chip away at the lead.

Vernon continued doing what he does best, attacking with alley-oop dunks and put back buckets. The senior finished the night 17 points and 8 rebounds and has set the tone for the future.

“He has done a great job of building the culture,” Dan Majerle said of Keonta Vernon’s leadership. “Keonta is a big culture guy. Josh [Braun] is a big culture guy. They set the tone.”

Grand Canyon then went on a 7-0 run with Alessandro Lever hitting a 3-pointer and scoring on a goaltending post-up. The freshman center added 20 points, marking his ninth game with at least 20 points in GCU’s last 15 games.

“Now it’s up for Alessandro and the rest of the guys to continue that [the culture the seniors have built],” Majerle said. “And they know what’s expected of them. Alessandro is going to be front and center for the next 3 years.”

The Aggies found a way to extend their lead back to 12, mainly by driving to the basket and drawing fouls. They went to the line 27 times, making 20 of them. Casey Benson, who added 12 and 7, and Lever got back-to-back 3-point plays to cut the deficit down to 6 but NMSU was just too much to handle as it scored 11 unanswered points.

The Lopes, who were seeking their first NCAA Tournament appearance in its first year of postseason eligibility after being in Division I for five years, had a spectacular season and have a bright future with coach Dan Majerle at the helm.

“We’re expected to win the WAC,” Majerle said. “We’re expected to win the tournament and we’re expected to go to the NCAA’s. We expect to be a top 25 team.”

So far, Majerle has fulfilled his list of things to accomplish at GCU by winning 20+ games, making it to the WAC tournament final, becoming NCAA eligible, and recruiting elite athletes, so becoming a nationally ranked top 25 team and making it to the NCAA tournament is definitely something coach Majerle can achieve in the near future.