LAS VEGAS - A half-decade later, the moment they've been waiting for is finally in front of them -- and they don't intend to let it slip through their fingers.
In their fifth season at the NCAA Division I level -- and their first season of being eligible for the NCAA Tournament -- the Grand Canyon Lopes men's basketball team is just one win away from earning an automatic bid to that tournament after advancing to the WAC Tournament championship at Orleans Arena on Friday.
GCU will face top-seeded New Mexico State in the championship game, which will begin at 8 p.m. Arizona time and will be televised on ESPNU.
"It’s finally here. It’s the moment we’ve been waiting for," GCU senior forward Keonta Vernon said after the Lopes defeated Utah Valley 75-60 to advance to Saturday's championship game. Vernon contributed 14 points and eight rebounds in the victory.
"Coach (Dan) Majerle has been on us from day one about it. If you knew some of the things that he said to us about it, you’d be a little freaked out. But like I say, this is the moment we’ve been waiting for. I believe we’re going to be ready for it."
Senior guard and Valley native Josh Braun was the first player Majerle successfully recruited when he took the GCU head coaching job. According to Braun, who scored 15 points in Friday's win, the NCAA Tournament is all Majerle has talked about for the last five years.
"It is a little surreal. It’s exciting," he said. "We talk about it all the time. Keonta and I are excited just to go out on this and leave it all on the court and just have fun, play for each other, and see where it’ll take us."
Beating New Mexico State won't be easy. The Lopes lost each of their first two matchups with the Aggies this season, including a 74-70 defeat at NMSU in their most recent meeting last month.
Aggies coach Steve Jans, however, said both of those games could have gone either way.
"We were down in both games, both at their place and at home, and for whatever reason, we ended up on top. It easily could've went their way, as well," Jans said after New Mexico State's win over Seattle in the other WAC semifinal game Friday night.
"It's a quick turnaround. Obviously we played each other twice and we know each other. We'll throw it up tomorrow and see what happens."
The Lopes nearly bowed out of the WAC Tournament in the quarterfinals but overcame some jitters to rally past Missouri-Kansas City on Thursday. Majerle, who has led GCU to three consecutive 20-win seasons, said those nerves were a result of just how long the team has waited for and talked about this opportunity.
But after Friday's win -- and even though the Lopes will be underdogs Saturday -- Majerle believes his guys are ready to take advantage of the opportunity in front of them.
"Every day, we’ve talked about this moment," Majerle said. "Now, we’re going to have to come back and play an excellent game tomorrow. New Mexico State is really, really good. But we’re excited to be here, man. It’s awesome."