The Grand Canyon University men’s basketball fell 79-73 to Western Washington in their NCAA West Regional First Round game at Sam Carver Gymnasium in Bellingham, Wash.
The Antelopes, the No. 8 seed in the West Regional, closed out their season with a 19-8 overall record. Western Washington, the No. 1 seed in the regional and the No. 12 team in the nation, improved to 26-5.
Grand Canyon started slowly this evening, trailing 14-1 to start the game. Nick Witherill hit a pair of three’s that closed the gap to 18-9 with 13:45 remaining in the opening half. The Vikings, who shot 59.4 percent (19-for-32) in the first half, increased their lead to 25 at 42-17 with 3:54 left. The Antelopes entered the halftime break down 48-27.
“I think Western Washington deserves the majority of the credit,” said head coach Russ Pennell. “They came out like a team at home should. They knocked us back on our heels and we were reeling for a bit. We just were out of rhythm early and not playing like ourselves.”
“I felt like early on we were a little overwhelmed by being in this environment,” added senior Kyle Speed. “We were doing a lot of things that were uncharacteristic of ourselves and we dug ourselves a hole going into the second half. But credit Western Washington; they are a very good team. We know we can play with those guys and we showed it in the second half but it was too much off a mountain to climb to get back into the game.”
Braylon Pickrel, who finished the game with a team-high 18 points, scored eight points in the opening 4:30 of the second half to get with 12 at 52-40. The Vikings’ John Allen, who finished the game with 24 points, sparked an 11-5 run to push the lead back to 18.
Blake Davis scored seven points during a furious 20-7 run that silenced the crowd and brought the ‘Lopes within 71-65. Back-to-back baskets by Pickrel closed the gap to four with 42 seconds left, the closest the game would get.
“I’m very proud of how these guys fought in the second half,” said Pennell. “We came in at halftime and calmly talked about things we needed to do. We battled back and gave ourselves a chance to win, but tonight we ran out of time.”
“The signature of this team is that we never give up, never give in,” said Speed. “That showed with us winning nine straight and getting into the tournament. I wish we would have had a better start. But even with that we still had our chances to win this game.”
Grand Canyon shot 65.5 percent (19-for-29) in the second half. They finished the game with 31 rebounds, compared to 29 for the Vikings.
The game was the final one for three seniors in Kyle Speed, Justin Wesolowski and Nick Witherill. Travis Currier, who will graduate a year early, also suited up for his final game with the Antelopes.
“What kills me is I will never get to play another game with this group of guys,” added Speed. “This is the best team I have ever been around. That’s what hurts the most.”
“These guys are the epitome of the word team,” said Pennell. “Every guy in here has sacrificed something for the good of the team. I think that is the way you need to play. I’ve never had more fun coaching a basketball team like I did with these guys this year.”
While this journey has come to end, the players and staff had much to reflect on about the completed season and the fans that followed them this season.
“The fans have been amazing to us all year long,” said Speed. “Without them and their support we never could have made this magical run like we did. I really hope they continue to follow this team and I know there are great things in store here for the future. The seniors set the foundation this year and these young guys will run with it to the next level.”
“I’m very appreciative to all of our students and fans that came out to support us this season,” added Pennell. “I think everyone saw how much fun it is at GCU Arena. I think people are starting to see that this is a great night of entertainment and these kids will give everything they have. We are family and we have room for as many people that want to be a family with us.”
Pennell finishes his third season with the confidence of seeing a plus-nine growth in the win/loss column from last season and a host of returning players. Among those expected to make big impacts next season are Brad Carroll (injury) and Killian Larson (transfer).
“In the short term this game gives our guys a standard to work towards,” said Pennell. “They know how hard we had to work to get here and now know hard it will take to succeed here. Getting here is the first step and succeeding is the second step. It’s our goal every year to get to the NCAA’s. The bar has been set and we need to get over it each year.”