Can Grand Canyon basketball finally break through at New Mexico State?

·5 min read
Jan 29, 2021; Phoenix, Arizona, USA; GCU's Jovan Blacksher Jr. (10) dribbles up the court against New Mexico State's Evan Gilyard II (3) during the first half at GCU Arena.
Jan 29, 2021; Phoenix, Arizona, USA; GCU's Jovan Blacksher Jr. (10) dribbles up the court against New Mexico State's Evan Gilyard II (3) during the first half at GCU Arena.

Grand Canyon has beaten New Mexico State in their last three meetings, including that break-through Western Athletic Conference Tournament championship game last March in Las Vegas that sent GCU to the NCAA Tournament for the first time.

But the Antelopes have never beaten New Mexico State at home.

In fact, NMSU has not lost a basketball game inside its Pan American Center to a WAC opponent since falling to Utah Valley in 2017.

After suffering painful losses at Stephen F. Austin and Sam Houston last week, the Lopes (14-4, 5-2) come into New Mexico State (16-3, 6-1) feeling an urgency to win.

NMSU is 83-4 in WAC home games and on a 27-game home win streak.

"They've been spectacular the last four or five years," GCU coach Bryce Drew said.

The Aggies lost twice in two days at GCU last year when COVID-19 changed the way the WAC conducted the season in 2021 and because of its state's COVID restrictions, the Aggies weren't able to play at home.

It was a strange, tough year for the Aggies, who have made this their season of vengeance. They don't take losses to GCU well, especially after beating the Lopes in the WAC Tournament final in 2018 and '19. (There was no WAC Tournament in 2020 because of COVID-19).

They also have big-time ammo this time around in Phoenix-raised Teddy Allen, who is coming off a 26-point performance in a 72-58 rout at Stephen F. Austin on Saturday. It matches his career high. Allen transferred from Nebraska, where he was teammates last year with GCU center Yvan Ouedraogo.

Earlier this month, Allen poured in 41 points in a win over Abilene Christian.

"He's a terrific scorer," Drew said. "A couple of games, he's just putting them on his back.

"The experience of (Sir'Jabari) Rice (21 points against SFA) and (Johnny) McCants back, (Will) McNair, (Clayton) Henry, they've got a lot of guys with him who have played a lot of minutes. They're a really, really good team."

After getting swept in Texas and knowing that the Aggies will pack their 12,000-seat arena for GCU with this being hailed as the revenge game, the Lopes know this will be their toughest WAC game in the Bryce Drew coaching era.

"For me, every basketball game is a basketball game," said GCU junior point guard Jovan Blacksher Jr., who had 15 of his 19 points in the first half of his team's 74-56 rout of the Aggies for the WAC tournament title last year when he was named the tournament MVP. "We just took two losses, so this game is very important, whether it's New Mexico (State) or any other team. We just have to go out there and execute and get a win."

It's been a reversal of misfortune for the Lopes after winning their first five WAC games that included a forfeit over Lamar. From shooting lights out to clanking shots off the rim with poor shooting games in Texas, the Lopes also dealt with not having Drew (in health and safety protocols) with them at SFA, not having surging backup guard Jayden Stone on the trip and seeing forward Taeshon Cherry suffer an ankle injury within the first minute he took the court in the 25-point SFA loss.

Stone is back after he lost eight pounds last week due to an illness.

Cherry is a game-time decision. He went a week without doing any skill work to see how he can move around the court.

Cherry's length, ability to stretch defenses with his 3-pointers and take chargers are missed.

Blacksher got little help from the rest of his teammates in Texas with both Holland Woods II and Gabe McClothan struggling to knock down shots they usually make. And Sean Miller-Moore wasn't able to get around the physical defense of SFA and Sam Houston for his usual alley-oop dunks along the baseline.

If there has been one constant, GCU has made WAC teams have ugly shooting performances. But the same can be said of the Aggies.

Now, the Lopes are facing a bigger, more talented and physical team in New Mexico State in the most hostile environment for a conference game they'll see this year. A team that gobbles up rebounds and cashes in on second-chance points.

"With an in-conference rivalry, with a lot of people there cheering against us, it hasn't happened in two years," Drew said. "Hopefully our guys adapt quickly."

Saturday's game

GCU (14-4, 5-2) at New Mexico State (16-3, 6-1), at Pan American Center, 7 p.m., ESPN+

About the Aggies: Nebraska transfer Teddy Allen had 26 points in a rout of Stephen F. Austin on Saturday. He was raised in Phoenix, went to Desert Ridge, and attended a prep school in Omaha, Nebraska his last two years of high school. The 6-foot-6 Allen leads them with 18.1 points and 6.9 rebounds a game. Sir'Jabari Rice averages 3.2 assists. They've won 27 straight home WAC games, with their last home loss coming in 2017 to Utah Valley.

About the Antelopes: They can become the first WAC opponent to beat New Mexico State in four consecutive meetings. They're coming off a 71-46 loss at Stephen F. Austin and 58-56 loss at Sam Houston. They had won six games in a row before that. PG Jovan Blacksher Jr. is the only Division I player in the nation to average 17 points and four assists while shooting 45% from the 3-point line.

To suggest human-interest story ideas and other news, reach Obert at richard.obert@arizonarepublic.com or 602-316-8827. Follow him on Twitter @azc_obert.

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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Can GCU basketball finally break through against New Mexico State?