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Basketball

Defense swarms to carry GCU in early season

29 Th11 2021 | 08:31

Grand Canyon’s WAC champions of last season melded a winning mix of elements, but the team’s titles were born out of defense and desire.

To get back to that level, the Lopes are leaning on defense as they assemble the package that could be ready for a bow by the holidays.

GCU have continued playing the sort of defense that ranked second nationally for opponent field goal percentage last season. The Lopes held their first two opponents to 52.0 points per game and stay stingy in Wednesday night’s home game against Southwest Athletic Conference three-time defending champion Prairie View A&M.

The sample size is small after the Lopes’ first two wins, but they are tasting success with a new slant to successful defense. Having more active big men, GCU can have its perimeter defense be more aggressive, but that also can lead to the fouls that put North Florida in the double bonus after 10 minutes Friday night and fouled out junior guard Jovan Blacksher Jr. after he had one disqualification last season.

“We’re more locked in all together as a unit on defense,” Blacksher said. “We have a lot of athletic people so it’s easier to rotate and get to spots that we need to get to cover and defend.

“Our coaching staff talks to us about getting more offensive possessions through defense. If we get a steal or a stop, we can push it. We’ve got some people who can jump, hit open 3s and score in a variety of ways in transition.”

With one returning starter and three other returning rotation players, the Lopes have some things to work out but are winning in the meantime by holding each opponent to less than 40% shooting from the field. It is early, but the scoring defense ranks 16th nationally after ranking 13th last season.

“We’re quicker,” said GCU fifth-year small forward Sean Miller-Moore, who has slid into a starting role. “Last year, we were bigger. This year, we’re focusing more on on-ball pressure defense because we’ve got Holland (Woods II), who is a pretty good defender, Jovan obviously and then me.

“We can make more plays on the ball, get steals, get out faster. It’s just being more active on the ball and being in gaps.”

The Lopes were at their best Friday when the defense sent them into transition. A Woods strip and blocked shot by junior power forward Yvan Ouedraogo sparked fastbreak points during an early 11-0 run.

Woods, Ouedraogo, junior power forward Aidan Igiehon and senior small forward Taeshon Cherry are summer transfers who are adjusting to a new system, especially with Igiehon and Cherry having not played a game since December until the season began.

“When transfers come in, you have high expectations, but the reality is a transfer in a way is similar to a freshman,” Drew said. “It takes them time to adapt to the system and really feel comfortable. Come December, January, they’re who you thought they were going to be.”

Lope tracks

  • Prairie View A&M went 44-5 in SWAC play over the past three seasons to win the regular-season title each time. Seventh-year coach Bryon Smith was voted the top mid-major coach in the nation for last season’s 16-5 campaign.
  • The Panthers are 0-5 with a brutal all-road slate at Saint Mary’s (87-68), San Francisco (92-76), Michigan (77-49), Oklahoma State (72-59) and Texas Tech 84-49. They will play 12 consecutive road games to open the season.
  • Jawaun Daniels (15.4 points per game) and D’Rell Roberts (13.4), a pair of 6-foot-7 guards, lead Prairie View in scoring. Daniels was voted SWAC Preseason Player of the Year.
  • GCU and Prairie View A&M are playing for the first time.
  • Woods ranks 32nd for career points among active Division I players with 1,568.
  • Blacksher is 5 for 10 on 3-pointers this season after ending last season with 6-for-13 shooting from 3-point range at the WAC Tournament.