Hear this! Russell, Havocs earn a huge shout-out
Story by Rick Vacek
Photos by Darryl Webb
GCU News Bureau
Rick Pitino has been coaching basketball for more than four decades, and it’s safe to say that, in all those years, he had never begun a press conference like this.
Because he had never seen anything like the scene at Grand Canyon University. He said so himself.
After an extraordinary game that properly rewarded the extraordinary anticipation of the biggest game in GCU history, the Louisville coach didn’t even need a question from the assembled media Saturday night to bare his feelings. He went on and on about how impressed he was with the Lopes and their fans after his 14th-ranked Cardinals’ hard-fought 79-70 victory at GCU Arena.
He called the efforts of GCU guard DeWayne Russell, who played the entire game and scored 42 absolutely heroic points, “the best guard performance I’ve ever seen against one of my teams.”
He called the Havocs, GCU’s student cheer section, “the toughest crowd I’ve ever faced.”
And even though he said his players could barely hear him during timeouts because of the noise …
Even though “I probably would have lost my job if we’d lost” …
Even though he acknowledged that his powerful program almost never plays a nonconference game on the road against a team that doesn’t have a similar pedigree …
He said he’d love to come back because of the respect he has for GCU coach Dan Majerle and the Havocs.
“You’ve got something special here,” he said. “When you’ve got this type of enthusiasm … Duke and Kentucky have nothing on this crowd.”
Neither does Louisville, which attracts 22,000 people to its home games but, according to Pitino, has fewer students there than the wall of screaming, pointing, chanting Havocs who confronted his team. Saturday’s game drew a GCU-record crowd of 7,493.
“We got more out of this game than any game this season,” Pitino said. “We had to play well to overcome this crowd.”
Even the Louisville fans sat in awe as they watched the noise get cranked up in the Pregame Purple Party and then envelop GCU Arena the rest of the evening. Chad Spear said he was so enthralled by the scene, he started recording video of the Havocs on his cellphone and kept going until his wife, Hope, intervened.
“I looked at him and said, ‘Hey, what are you doing? We’re from Louisville!’” she said, laughing.
This followed two days of tents springing up on the Quad as the students turned it into Camp Havoc. More than a hundred students in 30 tents braved near freezing temperatures Friday night to be among the first in line for admission to the Havocs section.
Almost half of them were out there for two nights, led by Daniel Elliott, who was dubbed “The Mayor” because he was the first to show up, at 9 a.m. Thursday. Elliott and his tentmates did the camping thing right, complete with a blown-up Despicable Me plus Christmas lights and a television plugged into an outlet in the Arena.
Everyone was well-fed — Majerle himself brought pizza Friday afternoon, and the campers were served coffee and donuts from Grand Canyon Beverage Company on Saturday morning. The java was especially needed after several of them stayed up all night Friday to be ready for a TV news crew that was there before dawn.
“I was freezing, even though I was wearing three shirts,” Elliott said but quickly added that he’d gladly do it again, maybe even as early as Tuesday night, for the San Diego State game on Wednesday.
The way the Quad scene played out was interesting in another way. All of the tents were close to the fence nearest the Arena, and the campers were having regular conversations with passersby.
“I feel like I’m in the zoo,” senior Zack Schwab said. “People walk by and take pictures of us. They ask what we’re doing and I tell them, ‘I’m just camping out for Chapel (on Monday morning).”
You’d never know the Havocs were freezing by the way they warmed to the occasion Saturday night. But no one was hotter than Russell, who broke the GCU record for a Division I game and tied the Western Athletic Conference single-game record.
His average of 27.8 points per game would lead the WAC by a wide margin and rank second in the country if he were eligible to be included in the statistics. Because of an agreement with the NCAA to gain an extra year of eligibility, Russell had to sit out the first two games of the season, and on Wednesday he will have played in the required 75 percent of the Lopes’ games.
Russell’s most amazing moment of an astounding night came at the end of the first half, when he took the inbounds pass, dribbled about 40 feet and launched a desperation 3-pointer from a few steps beyond midcourt. Swish. Incredibly, the Lopes led 37-36 against a team that beat them by 48 points last year, and the Arena has never been louder.
Pitino said he tried a number of different defenders against Russell, to no avail. “All we were trying to do was wear him out,” the coach said. But he also praised Majerle for the offense he has Russell operating.
“He (Russell) is a great, great player, but Dan Majerle is the best coach for him with the pro sets he runs,” Pitino said.
Russell, who on Monday was named WAC Player of the Week for the second time this season, certainly looked worn out after the game, but the subject of Majerle’s motivation and associate head coach Todd Lee’s input energized him.
“I told my team I was going to follow Coach Majerle’s lead,” Russell said. “We had a great game plan — Coach Lee told us where the traps were going to be. Coach Majerle had us prepared from 8 o’clock this morning.”
Majerle deflected the praise right back toward Russell, reminding his listeners that the greatest game plan in the world won’t work if the players don’t make shots — and don’t work at their game. Russell’s performance matched his work ethic.
“It was the most amazing thing I’ve seen, and he deserves it,” Majerle said. “He stays late after practice every day to work on his shooting. He even changed his diet.”
Of Pitino, Majerle said, “I have the utmost respect for him. He had absolutely nothing to gain and everything to lose by coming here.”
But it all came back to a crazy crowd on a night that won’t soon be forgotten at GCU — or Louisville. Russell said it “shows how great GCU is and where it’s going,” and Majerle noted that it was “a whole University effort.”
“This was an unbelievable crowd, but we’re used to that,” he said. “We have one of the best student sections in the country, and a lot of people saw it tonight. … To be able to showcase what we have is huge.”
Just ask Rick Pitino.
Contact Rick Vacek at (602) 639-8203 or firstname.lastname@example.org.