‘Lopes Way Up After Making Field for NCAA Tournament
By Doug Carroll
GCU News Bureau
Photos by Jak Keyser
Lightning struck twice over the weekend for the GCU men’s basketball team, and as a result the Antelopes are headed to Washington state this week for their first postseason appearance in five years.
About 24 hours after a do-or-die, last-second 3-pointer by junior Braylon Pickrel had given GCU a 73-72 homecoming victory Saturday night over Dixie State College, the Antelopes received word that they had squeezed into the 64-team field for the NCAA Division II Tournament.
As the eighth and final seed in the West Region, they will face No. 1-seeded Western Washington University on its home floor in Bellingham, Wash., at 8:30 p.m. Friday (Arizona time). The GCU women’s team, seeded third in the West, will play No. 6 Cal Poly Pomona at 1 p.m. Friday in San Diego.
Both teams plus a few fans gathered Sunday night in Antelope Gym to watch the NCAA’s live webcast announcing the tournament pairings.
There was little drama for the women, who had expected the third seed and now will have a chance to avenge a 68-61 defeat to Pomona that kept them from advancing to the Elite Eight last season.
However, tension was high for the announcement of the men’s tournament bracket 30 minutes later, and those assembled erupted in cheers when they saw on the big video screen that GCU had made it in.
“Seeing our name up there was the best feeling in the world,” said senior Kyle Speed, who is from Seattle (90 miles from Bellingham) and expects to have family at the first-round game.
“All day I was just praying we’d get the opportunity. It was all I could think about.”
The news seemed to lift an enormous weight from the shoulders of the players, who had gone into each game for the past month with no margin for error.
“This was a big relief,” said junior Steve Morin, adding that he’d had trouble sleeping Saturday night because of the emotional win and not knowing if the Antelopes would live to fight another day. “’Joyous’ and ‘jubilant’ are some other words you might use.”
Clearly, the selection committee was impressed by a late-season run that has seen GCU win nine games in a row and 11 of its last 13 on the way to records of 19-7 overall and 13-5 (third place) in the Pacific West Conference. The Antelopes were on the bubble and probably nudged out Cal Poly Pomona for the final spot in the West.
They also leapfrogged Brigham Young University-Hawai’i, which went all the way to the national championship game last year and finished second (14-4) in the PacWest this season. Late-season defeats at GCU and Dixie State hurt the aspirations of BYU-H.
Dixie State, the PacWest champion with a 15-3 conference record, also is on the way to Washington, as a sixth seed.
Pickrel, whose improved play has been significant in the winning streak, described hitting Saturday’s game-winner as “surreal” and said he fielded text messages until well into the night.
Asked if he had been watching replays of the shot, he joked, “That song ‘You’re So Vain’ is about me. If (the shot) went up on YouTube at 11 p.m., then I was watching it at 11:01.”
Head Coach Russ Pennell said his players had proved that they were a tournament team regardless of how the selections went.
“No one else had won nine in a row,” he said. “This team has peaked at the right time, and that’s what the committee wants. That carried the day.”
Pennell, familiar with the emotional roller coaster of Selection Sunday as a coach at the Division I level, said he tried to keep an even keel after the big win.
“I’ve been through this,” he said, “and trying to get your mind to think one way or the other is useless.”
As an assistant coach at the University of Mississippi, he was on the bench when one of the most famous last-second 3-pointers in history — made by Valparaiso University’s Bryce Drew — knocked favored Ole Miss out of the 1998 Division I tournament. Through annual replays, the shot has become an iconic image of March Madness.
Similarly, Pickrel’s shot is bound to live on, at least at GCU.
“Rarely does the ball go through and the horn go off (right away),” Pennell said. “And with (a tournament bid) on the line, that just raised the drama.”
Morin called the victory “the happiest moment of my life” and said the team’s late-season comeback is “a great story.” After two lackluster defeats on the road in northern California in early January, the Antelopes resembled anything but a team with postseason possibilities.
“We were in the dumps and there was doubt,” Morin admitted. “But we played it out. The turning point was our loss to Chaminade in Hawai’i (69-66 in overtime on Jan. 30). We knew we were playing well, and our goal became to win out.”
They haven’t lost since.
“We’re on fire right now,” senior Nick Witherill said.
Contact Doug Carroll at 639.8011 or [email protected].