LAS VEGAS — One year ago, Grand Canyon advanced to the Western Athletic Conference Tournament championship game -- but the Lopes' dreams of advancing to its first-ever NCAA Tournament were dashed at the hands of WAC rival New Mexico State.
On Saturday, the Lopes will get a second chance.
GCU, the No. 3 seed in this year's WAC Tournament, outlasted No. 2 seed Utah Valley 78-74 at the Orleans Arena on Friday night, moving the Lopes to the WAC Tournament championship game for the second straight season. Waiting for them once again will be top-seeded NMSU, which defeated Rio Grande Valley earlier Friday to set up the championship game rematch.
Saturday's game will tip off at 7 p.m. and will be televised on ESPNU.
"This is what we've talked about all year long," GCU coach Dan Majerle said. "It's about finding a way to get to the championship of the WAC Tournament and giving ourselves a chance to get to the Big Dance, which obviously we haven't been able to do just in our second year (of eligibility).
"I'm proud of our guys. We've had some ups and downs all year long, but we've never stopped fighting. I'm very happy that we have one more chance."
The Lopes lost 72-58 to NMSU in last year's championship game, denying GCU an automatic NCAA Tournament berth. The Aggies defeated the Lopes in both of their matchups this season, but both games came down to the wire. NMSU needed a half-court shot at the buzzer to beat GCU in Las Cruces on Jan. 10, and the Aggies slipped past the Lopes 67-64 in Phoenix on Feb. 9.
NMSU will enter Saturday's game riding a 18-game winning streak. But Majerle said the Lopes will be ready.
"We understand New Mexico State is a terrific team. They really are. To win as many games as they have and to go through the conference -- to lose their first game at Cal Baptist and not lose again -- they're terrific. Coach (Chris) Jans does an unbelievable job," Majerle said.
"I would say this: Our guys have a level of confidence that they know that they can beat them. Now, we understand that we're going to have to play really hard and really well. But there's no reason that these guys don't think that they can come in here (Saturday) and beat them."
The Lopes were led Friday by junior guard Carlos Johnson, who followed up a career-high 31-point performance in Thursday's quarterfinal win over Seattle with another career high of 35 points against Utah Valley. Senior forward Michael Finke added 10 points for GCU.
Finke, a grad transfer from Illinois, has never played in the NCAA Tournament. Saturday will be his last chance to make that dream a reality.
"One of the biggest reasons I came here is I knew we'd have a chance to go to the Tournament," he said. "(Saturday is) going to be a big game. But I can't get caught up in that. I've just got to do what I can to really execute, help this team win and, if we can do what we're capable of, hopefully (it'll happen)."