The Wildcats won, but Grand Canyon's effort and fans were the story in Tucson

Posted at 12:48 AM, Dec 15, 2016
and last updated 2016-12-15 12:33:28-05

In the last several years, Grand Canyon men's basketball coach Dan Majerle has scheduled as many games as possible against ranked opponents.

"We always like to play top-20 teams because eventually that's what we want to be," Majerle said before Wednesday's showdown with the No. 19 Arizona Wildcats at McKale Center.

Wednesday's result is more proof that the Antelopes are well on their way to achieving that goal.

Yes, the Wildcats got the win on their home court, 64-54 -- but they weren't able to put away GCU until the game's final minutes. What's more: Their fans, whom Louisville coach Rick Pitino singled out for praise less than two weeks ago, made their presence known on the road. 

Normally, it's well-traveled UA fans who make a considerable amount of noise in opponents' gyms. But on Wednesday, a "Let's go Lopes" chant reverberated through McKale Center loudly enough that it was audible on ESPNU.

UA coach Sean Miller heard it, too.

"In my eight years (in Tucson), I've never seen a student section in McKale filled with the visitors," Miller said after the game. "I mean, they had a whole section. You could hear them cheering.

"You can just tell they've got a great spirit about what they're doing, and that's to Grand Canyon's credit."

Early on, it looked like the Wildcats would make short work of the Antelopes, as they jumped out to a 32-16 lead late in the first half.

In situations like those, most undersized teams playing on the road would proceed to be blown out. But Grand Canyon used the toughness it learned playing at places like Duke, Kentucky and Indiana to battle back.

Led by their star, 5-foot-11 senior guard DeWayne Russell, the Lopes ended the half on a 9-0 run to cut UA's lead to just seven points at halftime. Russell's layup with 10:22 to play in the second half trimmed Arizona's lead to 44-40, spurring on the GCU fans who made the trip to Tucson and causing a bit of a panic among the sold-out McKale Center crowd.

"Our guys aren't intimidated," Majerle said. "This is an awesome place to play. I know the students weren't here (due to winter break) but it's still a great crowd, it's still a great environment ... but we have played in some of the toughest arenas and this ranks right up there with them."

Ultimately, the Wildcats were a bit too big and physical for the Lopes, and they scored the game's next eight points to take back control. But Majerle believes Wednesday's gritty performance will help move GCU even closer to their goal of becoming a national contender.

"In the past we would've gotten blown out by a team like this on their home court," Majerle said. "Our guys battled."

And just like the GCU fans who made the trip, the effort did not go unnoticed by UA's coach, who said the Wildcats agreed to play the Lopes because they realize just how good GCU already is.

"They're one of the hardest playing teams we've faced in several seasons," Miller said. "We didn't play Grand Canyon to help build their program or do them a favor. If playing us helps build their program, great. We played their team because we respect them. They had 27 wins last year.

"We (played them) to help us. That's the greatest compliment you can give them -- not, 'Hey, we want to help you get started. We're playing you because you're good, and we respect you.'"