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Grand Canyon advances to the WAC final after beating Utah Valley 75-60

In their first ever Western Athletic Conference tournament, the GCU Lopes find themselves one game away from the NCAA tournament big dance after a big win over #2 seed Utah Valley in the tournament semifinals.

After recovering from first half jitters and coming back from a 16-point deficit in their first postseason against UMKC, the Lopes came out rejuvenated in their semifinal game against the Utah Valley Wolverines.

Freshman Alessandro Lever and senior Josh Braun both set the tone early. Lever picked up where he left off from his 29-point game on Thursday afternoon by hitting 3 straight three-pointers to start the game. Braun added one, too, after going scoreless against the Kangaroos the game before.

“The guys trust him, we trust him,” coach Dan Majerle said of Josh Braun. “I knew he was going to break out of it [his shooting slump] and I just made a decision before the game that I’m going to go to Josh early and see what he’s got.”

Majerle’s decision worked as Braun was not only the first to score in the game but he went on a tear putting up 15 points on 5-of-12 shooting and grabbed 6 rebounds. Lever also added 15 points and 7 boards.

The Lopes went on a 12-0 run taking a 25-9 lead 9 minutes into the game. They shot 5-of-7 from beyond the arc to start, an area they struggled with on Thursday. They went 3-of-21 from long range against the Roos.

“Everyday we’ve talked about this moment,” Majerle said about playing in the WAC championship game. “So to get by that yesterday was huge. Today we came out real free, like I said, came out and played really well to begin it. Shot the ball extremely well so it was great.”

Senior Keonta Vernon added his intensity and veteran leadership the Lopes needed down the stretch to close out the first half. He did an incredible job attacking the basket and drawing fouls and made difficult shots over Utah Valley seven footer Akolda Manyong, a big difference from how he played the day before.

“I didn’t have a good game yesterday,” Vernon said. “I barely played and the team pushed me and made sure my head was on straight for today.”

Utah Valley went on a drought for over 2 minutes but a couple of costly turnovers by GCU had the Wolverines close the gap a bit. Braun answered back with a pull up jumper to give the Lopes the 41-27 lead at halftime.

Both GCU and UVU came out of halftime aggressive on both ends of the floor but the Lopes offense started getting sloppy and the Wolverines wasted no time capitalizing on it to get within 9 points.

Grand Canyon went scoreless for 4 minutes allowing Utah Valley to go on an 8-0 to eventually get within 5 with 8:20 left to go.

Lever stopped the run with a put back bucket and suddenly the momentum shifted back in the Lopes favor. Braun got fouled on a three and knocked down all 3 free throws to extend the lead 56-49.

Casey Benson, who added 7 points and 4 rebounds, got into foul trouble allowing Utah Valley to cut the deficit down to 5.

That’s when Vernon scored 8 straight points including two free throws and a smooth jumper to bring GCU’s lead back up to 10 with 2:13 left, basically sealing the deal and leading Grand Canyon to its first WAC finals in program history.

“It’s finally here,” Vernon said. “The moment we’ve all been waiting for. Coach Majerle has been on us since day one about it.”

“It’s a little surreal,” Braun said on finally having the opportunity to play in the WAC tournament. “It’s exciting. I think it brings a lot of energy, a lot of passion. We’re excited. We talked about it all the time. Keonta and I are just excited to go out on this. Leave it all out on the court and just have fun and play for each other and we’ll see where it’ll takes us.”

The 3-seeded Antelopes (22-10) advance to Saturday’s championship game to face No. 1 seed New Mexico State (26-5), a team they lost to twice in the regular season.

Tipoff is at 8 p.m. MST on ESPNU.