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'It's go time': GCU heads to Vegas with chance to earn first-ever NCAA Tournament bid

Posted at 2:00 PM, Mar 06, 2018
and last updated 2018-03-06 16:00:03-05

They've waited five long years for this moment -- and they couldn't be more excited to take advantage of the massive opportunity that awaits them 300 miles away.

The Grand Canyon men's basketball team will head to Las Vegas this week to compete in their first-ever Western Athletic Conference Tournament. The prize: An automatic bid to the 2018 NCAA Tournament.

Go here for the complete tournament schedule

"I've been waiting five years for this. It means everything to us," said Valley native Josh Braun, a senior guard and GCU's leading scorer.

Led by coach and former Phoenix Suns star Dan Majerle, the Lopes joined the NCAA Division I ranks in 2013 -- but per NCAA rules, they were not allowed to compete in the NCAA Tournament in each of their first four seasons. Of course, that didn't stop Majerle and GCU from enjoying winning records in three of those seasons, and 49 combined victories in their previous two.

Now, here in their fifth season at the D-I level, GCU finally has a chance to go to The Big Dance for the first time in school history. The Lopes have struggled at times this season but enter the WAC Tournament riding a three-game winning streak. They finished the regular season with a 20-10 overall record and 9-5 conference mark, good for third place in the WAC.

"It hasn't gone as planned," Majerle said. "But we sure did finish strong, which is a great thing."

GCU will open the WAC Tournament with Thursday's quarterfinal matchup against Missouri-Kansas City, a team the Lopes have already beaten twice this season. A GCU win would set up a likely Friday semifinal showdown with Utah Valley, which the Lopes defeated by a single point in Phoenix two weeks ago.

New Mexico State, the WAC's top regular-season team, would likely await GCU in Saturday's championship game. The Lopes lost to NMSU in each of their two matchups this season, including a narrow 74-70 defeat last month.

But the Lopes aren't looking ahead. GCU senior forward Keonta Vernon, who proposed to his girlfriend in front of 7,000 Lopes fans before Saturday's game, knows better than to focus on anyone other than his next opponent.

"It's go time now," Vernon said. "One game at a time. We need to win three of them."

Before the season, most experts predicted GCU would win the WAC regular-season championship. The Lopes fell short of that goal -- but Majerle knows the more important prize is standing right in front of them.

"I told these guys from the beginning: All that matters is the three games in March," Majerle said. "We're finally there. Our guys are excited. You can see it in their face. 

"It's gonna be tough. But they love it, and so do I. It's been a long time."

The only way GCU will earn a trip to the NCAA Tournament is by winning three games in Las Vegas. That's why, for the Lopes, it's WAC Tournament championship or bust.

It's an opportunity five years in the making.

"We want to win that thing. That's the goal," Braun said. "That's what we've been waiting for, that's what we've been working for, and I think we're excited to do it."