Grand Canyon defeated New Mexico State twice over the weekend. The Antelopes won 70-62 on Friday and 65-53 on Saturday, emphatically upholding the Western Athletic Conference lead. It also dropped the Aggies, the league’s defending champions and perennial powerhouse, to last place.
Grand Canyon is the Team to Beat in the WAC
NMSU isn’t supposed to be .500 on the year. The program also shouldn’t have zero conference wins at this point in the season. However, they’ve only been able to compete in six games due to COVID-related issues and strict state guidelines. Oh, and Grand Canyon is better than people think—or at least know.
The Antelopes started the season with four straight wins, including a victory against a solid Nevada squad. Their first blemish of the season was a heartbreaking one-point loss to then-No. 23 Arizona State on Dec. 13, 2020. After a losing effort in a close battle against a volatile San Francisco team, Grand Canyon then fell to a power-conference foe, Colorado, and their hot start quickly diminished. I’m not supporting much of a case for the Antelopes at the moment.
Another factor to consider is that all Grand Canyon’s early-season wins and losses were played at home in Phoenix. They were still unproven going into conference play. The WAC adopted the same two-game series format as other conferences, and the Antelopes benefited. They traveled to Tarleton and Dixie State, claiming victory in all four matches. Both their opponents, however, have losing records and aren’t expected to add many more tallies to their respective win columns. I’m still not making much of a case here. Then Grand Canyon got their chance, the opportunity to be the best by beating the best, so they did.
New Mexico State Falls on Friday and Saturday
Head Coach Bryce Drew had his team prepared for the first leg of their key series against NMSU. Center Alessandro Lever and guard Mikey Dixon both contributed 14 points to lead the Antelopes. However, their defensive pressure earned them the victory. Grand Canyon held the Aggies to just 30.8% shooting, including a lousy 17.9% from three-point range. Both were well below NMSU’s season averages. The Antelopes also held the Aggies’ leading-scorer, Clayton Henry, to a mediocre five points.
Saturday was no different than Friday. Lever again had a solid stat line, and his frontcourt-mate, Asbjorn Midtgaard added 14 points and 10 rebounds. The Aggies shot just slightly better and Henry only upped his point total from the prior night by two. Johnny McCants, who led NMSU on Friday with 13 points, finished with just four. The Antelopes were simply more efficient than the Aggies in the second game.
What This Means for Grand Canyon
Nothing really. No offense to Drew and his team, but no NCAA Tournament at-large bids are granted to the WAC. Perhaps things will eventually change long after the conference expands. For now, a program must win the league tournament to be invited to the big dance. That program is usually NMSU. The Aggies have won eight of the last 10 conference crowns.
NMSU has had seven games canceled and two games postponed this season. The program has had two extensive pauses thus far, the first from Dec. 1-Dec. 28, 2020, and the other from Dec. 29, 2020-Jan. 25. If any team were to have an excuse, it would be them, but that also means nothing. What Grand Canyon must remember is that it’s hard to beat a good team once, very difficult to beat them twice, and improbable to do so a third time in one season. Just ask the New Orleans Saints after losing to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in this year’s NFL playoffs.
And there it is: the Antelopes will have to earn that third victory over the Aggies in the WAC Tournament, the one game it will actually matter if it were to occur. It’s also improbable to complete the sweep against an experienced postseason team. NMSU doesn’t have a Tom Brady-esque player, of course, but they do have a proven record.
Grand Canyon is looking to shift the power, but the journey still has one more trying leap.
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