Defense carries to new season’s opening win

29 Th11 2021 | 08:14

Grand Canyon’s regular-season opener was so dominant in its first impression Tuesday night that it looked like the type of team capable of making a lasting impression.

GCU has quite the act to follow from last season’s historic ride to the NCAA tournament, but the wheels kept rolling to start head coach Bryce Drew‘s second season by blowing past Grambling State at GCU Arena. The Lopes led by 30 points nearly midway through the second half of a 74-53 victory.

The GCU defense that ranked second nationally last season for opponent field goal percentage gained mobility without losing size this season. Its activity frustrated Grambling into missing 17 of its first 20 shots.

“We’re going to have to defend at a high level and rebound at a high level,” Drew said. “I think one of the strengths of our four bigs is crashing the boards and being able to really move and defend. That is something, as we get more into season, those guys are going to have do at a high level.”

The Lopes also are deeper, as shown when the lead expanded to 15-3 and 21-5 even as Drew went through a nine-man rotation early. When the lead ballooned, Drew went 11 deep and sophomore guard Jayden Stone and freshman guard Jalen Blackmon each added transition 3-pointers for a 40-18 halftime lead.

Any further backcourt depth is a bonus when junior Jovan Blacksher Jr. plays like he did Tuesday night. The point guard from Phoenix scored 16 first-half points, continuing to show his improved shooting with 3-of-6 accuracy on 3-pointers. Graduate transfer Holland Woods II’s experience and versatility and sophomore guard Chance McMillian’s growth allows Blacksher to benefit off the ball more.

“It brings me back to me my natural way,” said Blacksher, who has scored 14 or more points in five consecutive games after finishing last season strongly. “They’re watching me now, so I tell my teammates, ‘When I come off, they’re going to jump here so you’re going to be open.’ Then I can get my teammates involved and everybody has fun.

“When you knock down a shot, they have to respect it so you take what they give you from there.”

GCU can play with more tempo this season, like when it capped a 16-2 run with Blacksher making a steal and sending an outlet to Woods, who passed ahead to fifth-year forward Sean Miller-Moore for a slam and a 21-5 lead.

In the second half, it was an all-reserve lineup that was responsible for most of an 11-0 run that put GCU ahead 58-28 with 11:17 remaining. Lopes reserves outscored the starters with junior power forward Gabe McGlothan tallying 11 points and a team-high six rebounds in 22 turnover-less minutes.

“We have a deep and everyone’s talented and they shine in their own different ways,” McGlothan said. “That will be very special when we play different teams and we see different lineups because we can go with different options and try to see what will exploit other team’s weakness. When that really comes together, it’s going to be something special and I think this team is going to be great.”

The exhibition win’s turnover issues continued in the first half, when GCU made nine turnovers. But against a Grambling team that frequently mixes various man and zone defensive looks, the Lopes turned the second-half turnover count down to four. The bench only committed two turnovers in 95 combined minutes.

“Changing defenses is tough, especially the first game of the year,” Drew said. “That’s where the experience of Jovan and Holland really help. As they see the defenses, they can get us into offense. It’s something we talk about and try to work on, but until you get a live situation, you never know how your team will respond so I’m very pleased.”

Drew also wants the Lopes to be a team that leans on its rebounding to control games, like last season’s team did when it ranked fifth in the nation for rebound margin. GCU began the season by outrebounding Grambling 29-10 in the first half, when they had 14 second-chance points. Five Lopes tallied at least five rebounds for the game.

“Rebounding is something that we talk about and something that we do all the time,” Drew said. “It needs to be a staple of our team. The first half, I thought we did it really well. In the second half, we gave them eight offensive rebounds. It wasn’t great effort consistently throughout the last 20 minutes. When people talk about our team, one of the things at the top has to be how we rebound the ball.”

The Lopes had returned to a full house 10 days earlier for the exhibition, but Monday night marked the official start of the season with 7,145 fans at GCU Arena for the first full-capacity regular-season game in 20 months. Blacksher was the only current Lopes player who previously played a GCU regular-season game in front of a sold-out home crowd.

“It’s just unbelievable,” McGlothan said. “You’re living a dream that not really anybody gets to experience. You’re the one that is playing in front of the crowd that’s the best in the nation. It’s just a surreal moment. I’m super blessed and I know our guys are feeling the same way.”