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GCU Rallies Back from 16 to Win Tough Battle in Postseason Debut

GCU defeated UMKC 77-74 to win their first ever Western Athletic Conference tournament game at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas on Thursday afternoon.

The Lopes struggled at the start of their game against the Kangaroos and had to rally back from a 16-point deficit. It wasn’t pretty but head coach Dan Majerle was proud of the way his team fought back.

“I’m real happy for our guys,” Majerle said. “It’s been four long years for us to get here. I knew there would be some jitters. It showed, I think we were down 20-4 at the beginning of the game. We had to fight all the way through. Really proud of our young guys.”

Freshman Alessandro Lever looked impressive and was not afraid of the big stage. He scored a team-high 29 points, marking the eighth 20-point game in his last 13 games. He went to the line 17 times hitting 13 free throws.

“When I started the game I was pretty nervous,” Lever said.  “As a team we didn’t play hard enough. They were up. After that, we started playing our basketball and came back.”

Sophomore Oscar Frayer showed out, too, scoring 13 points and grabbed a career-high 15 boards including the game-winning rebound after a potential game-tying UMKC 3-pointer miss.

“We knew they were small coming in,” Frayer said. “So just going out there and being aggressive on the boards because we knew that we had to.  We’re pretty big, much bigger than them.  Just needed to go out there and rebound and play hard.”

GCU (21-10) faced UMKC (10-22) for the third time, after blowing them out by 20 points in the first matchup and 17 points in the next game during the regular season. They shot over 50 percent from the field in both games but it was different story on Thursday.

Grand Canyon struggled from the field shooting 40 percent and 14 percent from three-point range. The Lopes missed 12 of their first 13 shots and trailed 20-4 with 13:22 left to go in the first half.

That’s when freshman point guard Damari Milstead entered the game to join a lineup that consisted of Matt Jackson, Alessandro Lever, Roberts Blumbergs and Gerard Martin. The crew went on a 14-2 run with Lever scoring nine points including 4 consecutive makes at the rim to cut the deficit.

“We started to get some stops,” Majerle said. “We weren’t stopping anybody.  Got out and ran a little bit, got the ball into Ale, scored a little bit in the post. I thought we did a good job offensive rebounding, giving us our second shots.”

The Lopes went on a tear over the final 13 minutes of the first half, making 12 of 23 shots and went into halftime down 42-40. They also locked down defensively holding the Roos scoreless in the final 3:46 of the half.

“It all starts with our defense,” Majerle said. “We’ve been a really good defensive team all year long and we weren’t tonight.  Credit to our guys to keep going and find a way to gut this out.”

UMKC had the lead for over 28 minutes of the game but GCU managed to take its first lead with 15:29 left to go. That didn’t last long, though, as the Lopes couldn’t hit a three, shooting 3-of-21 from beyond the arc allowing the Roos to gain back the lead 68-63 with 6:13 left.

The tables turned as GCU did what they do best, holding it down on the defensive end, causing UMKC to miss three of their last 4 shots and forcing 2 turnovers in crunch time.

Senior point guard Casey Benson came up big down the stretch with just under 2 minutes left. He hit two free throws to put GCU ahead 73-72 and then defended Xavier Bishop who missed a layup. Then Lever put back his miss to extend the Lopes lead 75-72 with 1:05 left to go but the Roos wouldn’t go away as they cut the lead to one again. Milstead drained two clutch free throws for the 77-74 lead with 21 seconds to go.

GCU only had the lead for 6 minutes total but somehow the Lopes found a way to hang on. It’s not how you start the game but how you finish.

No. 3 seed Grand Canyon advances to the quarterfinal to play No. 2 seed Utah Valley at 7 p.m. MST on Friday at Orleans Arena.