Majerle, Lopes looking for payback after heartbreaking loss to archrival New Mexico State

GCU lost to NMSU on a halfcourt buzzer-beater
Posted at 10:41 AM, Feb 09, 2019
and last updated 2019-02-09 12:41:17-05

It's fair to say Dan Majerle has been through his share of devastating losses.

"I was in the NBA Finals and John Paxson hit a 3 to end our season. I've never really gotten over that," the former Phoenix Suns star said.

But not even Majerle, a 14-year NBA veteran who's in his sixth year as Grand Canyon's men's basketball coach, had ever experienced what happened in Las Cruces, New Mexico, on Jan. 10.

The Lopes were in town to face New Mexico State, which has quickly become GCU's archrival in the Western Athletic Conference. With first place in the WAC on the line, the Lopes mounted a last-minute rally to take a one-point lead over the Aggies. But after Trey Dreschel missed a free throw with 3.3 seconds to play, New Mexico State's Johnny McCants grabbed the rebound and drilled a ridiculous shot from beyond halfcourt to give NMSU a 77-75 victory.

"I still think about the shot at New Mexico State," Majerle said. "But that's part of the game."

For four weeks, the Lopes have thought about getting even with the Aggies. That opportunity has finally arrived, as the Lopes will welcome NMSU to GCU Arena for a big WAC showdown Saturday at 7 p.m.

The Aggies have been a thorn in GCU's side for a while now. Last season, NMSU beat GCU in all three of their meetings, including a 72-58 victory in the WAC Tournament final in Las Vegas to deny the Lopes what would have been their first-ever trip to the NCAA Tournament.

But Majerle was encouraged by how his team responded after the loss in Las Cruces last month, as the Lopes went on to win each of their next five games.

"I was very proud of our guys, the way we were able to bounce back and kind of let that one go, and continue to play good basketball," he said.

The Lopes' winning streak was halted Thursday with a loss to an average Rio Grande Valley team for their first home defeat of the season. In hindsight, the loss wasn't terribly surprising, as GCU learned before the game that it lost possibly its best defender, senior guard Gerard Martin, for the rest of the season. And then, of course, there's the classic trap-game element, as GCU might have already been thinking ahead to its Saturday night showdown with the hated Aggies.

The Lopes enter Saturday's game 7-2 in the WAC, one game behind NMSU, which earned a one-point overtime win at Cal State Bakersfield two nights ago.

"We all know about New Mexico State. They've been our rival, and a team we have to go through to be successful and win the WAC," Majerle said.

The Lopes, however, have one of the most imposing home-court advantages in college basketball thanks to the Havocs, the nationally famous GCU student section.

In that regard, Majerle was happy to throw a shot across the bow.

"We've had some great rivalries through the basketball team. I don't think it's much of a rivalry in the student section. Ours blows them away," he said. "But the basketball teams are really good, so we want to be the perennial good team in the WAC, and they've been that the last couple years."

Majerle has big plans for the Lopes. He envisions them reaching the top 25 and becoming one of the nation's top mid-major schools, following the same model Gonzaga used: Punch a ticket to the NCAA Tournament, and win games when you get there.

But first, the Lopes have to overcome that roadblock that continues to stand in their way. A win over New Mexico State on Saturday won't get the Lopes to the Tournament -- but it would be a significant statement on their way back to Las Vegas for the WAC Tournament next month.

"They've always been the best team, and we're a team that wants to get there. They understand that," Majerle said. "They understand that we're good; we know that they're good, so we want to get to where they are, and they want to stop us."