Lopes keep playoff hopes alive with victories over Northern Arizona Friday and Saturday
By: Jim Howell/GCU Club Sports Information Director
They’ve helped themselves. Now they need a little more.
Needing a minimum of two wins in the final three-game series of their regular season to have a chance at a regional playoff berth, the GCU Men’s Club Basketball Team White eked out a close 86-81 victory over Northern Arizona University in Game 3 Saturday afternoon in Flagstaff after splitting the first two games of the series. The Lopes battled back to salvage Game 1, 82-77, Friday night before falling to the Lumberjacks Saturday morning in Game 2, 87-80. The two wins assure GCU White of no worse than 2nd place in the National Club Basketball Association’s Southern Pacific Conference (SoPac) East Conference. It also keeps GCU White’s hopes alive for clinching at least an at-large berth in the SoPac Regional Tournament, which happens March 29 through 31 at the site of the team with the best record of the three SoPac Conferences (East, West and North).
Game 1: GCU 82, NAU 77
The weekend started out with a sense of urgency… but not for the team that needed it.
“NAU got off to a great start, played with a lot of energy, and we just didn’t keep up,” said Lopes’ Head Coach Matt Gordon. “We got down about 13 points in the first half, and (Lopes’ sophomore guard) Trever (Ballard) did a good job keeping us in the game making some shots.”
The Lumberjacks – who with a conference record of 3-6 going into the weekend was officially playing the role of ‘spoiler’ – took the role seriously early on. NAU’s T.J. Robinson and Brett Morrow each had 12 first-half points as the ‘Jacks led by as many as 15 points in the first half. Ballard had 16 points in the first 20 minutes to lead the Lopes back to within a point at halftime, 42-41.
The Lopes learned from their slow start to the game and stayed within range throughout the second half, but never took the lead until the game’s final minute. The Lopes clamped down defensively to hold the Lumberjacks’ offense in check down the stretch, and then GCU made their free throws to ice the comeback win. Ballard, Jayden Michael and Dante’ Nobles led the charge, shooting a combined 9-for-11 in the second half from the free throw line. Ballard’s 25 points led all scorers, Michael added 14, while Nobles and Caleb Smith each chipped in 13 in the victory.
Game 2: NAU 87, GCU 80
The Lopes got off to another sluggish start Saturday morning, and this time, were unable to mount a successful comeback. The Lopes continued to chip away at a 10-point halftime deficit, and even cut the Lumberjacks’ lead to two points in the second half, but NAU put the game away with strong perimeter shooting down the stretch, and controlled the rebounding battle inside.
“It just wasn’t a very inspired effort for us, since it seemed like our guys were doing their own thing,” said Gordon. “NAU deserved to win. We’ve only had good starts to games three times in our 12 conference games, so for Game 3, we changed the starting lineup to see what that would do.”
Game 3: GCU 86, NAU 81
While the shuffled lineup didn’t dominate the Lumberjacks in the first 10 minutes, it solved a few Lopes’ problems.
“We had an average start, but didn’t get behind the “eight-ball” like we did in the first two games, and stayed even with NAU,” Gordon said. “We played with a little more focus, and we just looked like the less tired team in playing the back-to-back games Saturday.”
The teams jockeyed back and forth throughout much of the first 30 minutes, but a 10-0 Lopes’ run with five minutes left in the game gave the Lopes the lead for good. The Lopes benefitted from another balanced offensive effort as Ballard, Michael, Nobles and junior forward Michael Rhein all scored in double figures in the win.
“You’re always disappointed when you don’t get the sweep, but it could’ve been worse with our slow starts,” said Gordon about the weekend. “NAU was a lot better than we anticipated. They were organized and made some shots, so I’m actually happy that we took two out of three (up in Flagstaff).”
With their regular season schedule now completed, the Lopes must now play the waiting game as to whether they will earn a trip to regionals, and where those regionals will be held. If the playoffs started tomorrow, 8th-ranked Arizona State University would host the four-team regional playoff (that GCU’s Purple team hosted last March at Antelope Gym) in Tempe. However, the Sun Devils – who like the Lopes, have two teams in the SoPac East Conference – won’t finish their regular season schedule until two weekends from now when their first-place Tempe campus team will travel to face the ASU Downtown team in a three-game series March 15 and 16. Currently, Cal Poly and Stanford are battling for first place in the SoPac North, and four Los Angeles-area teams are battling for first place in the SoPac West with two weekends’ worth of games left on the regular season docket.