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LAS VEGAS — It was supposed to be a game for the ages. No. 2 taking on No. 3 for a chance to play for the Western Athletic Conference championship.
Grand Canyon and Utah Valley split the single-season series.
But it was GCU that came out and threw the first punch, and UVU never recovered.
Alessandro Lever hit three-straight 3-pointers and GCU jumped out to a 27-9 lead just nine minutes into the first half and held off a UVU second-half run en route to a 75-60 win Friday night at Orleans Arena in Las Vegas.
“Really proud of our guys," GCU head coach Dan Majerle said. "They came out on fire. We took a great punch in the second half and really sustained it and made some plays down the stretch. Very, very proud of our guys. This is what we have been playing for."
In its first appearance at the WAC Tournament, GCU advances to the WAC championship game where it await the winner of top-seeded New Mexico State and No. 4 Seattle University.
GCU senior forward Joshua Braun had scored just two points against UVU in both the regular-season meetings.
Playing for a championship has a way of changing that. Braun scored the first two points, and from there GCU was off and running. Braun finished with 15 points and six rebounds.
“The guys just encouraged me to be aggressive," Braun said. "That was the big thing … I just wanted to be aggressive and have fun.”
In just over a minute, Lever made sure GCU made an opening statement. The WAC freshman of the year hit a 3-pointer on three consecutive possessions to make it 21-9, and back-to-back layups by Braun and Matt Jackson, along with an Oscar Frayer tip-in, and GCU had its largest lead of the game just nine minutes into the game.
UVU got off to a strong start in the second half as 7-footer Akolda Manyang dribbled by Lever and threw down a two-handed dunk. However, every time UVU tried to mount any kind of comeback, GCU punched right back.
UVU cut the deficit to four points twice in the second half as it picked up the defense and was able to go inside to Manyang.
Unfortunately for the Wolverines, the basket wouldn't loosen up. UVU senior guard Brandon Randolph hit two free throws to cut the deficit to four points with just over seven minutes to play.
However, UVU went almost four minutes without a field goal, and GCU took advantage.
Keonta Vernon scored six straight points and the Lopes pushed the advantage back to 10 with 3:01 to play. GCU sealed its first trip to the WAC championship game by going 11-14 from the free-throw line down the stretch.
Vernon finished in double figures for the first time against UVU all season with 14 points and eight rebounds.
Manyang finished with an 18-point, 12-rebound double-double. Randolph and Kenneth Ogbe each finished in double figures with 10 and 12 points, respectively.
In the first half, the 3-point line had an impact. GCU hit five 3-pointers while UVU was just 1-of-9 from distance.
“As a coach, you always have a plan for everything…except for this," UVU head coach Mark Pope said. "Congratulations to Grand Canyon. They were a better team than us tonight … I was really proud of my guys. They battled. Really fought. Stayed together for the whole game. Just couldn’t get over the hump.”
The Wolverines currently sit at 22-9 overall and will await an invitation to a postseason tournament. UVU made a run to the semifinals of the 2017 College Basketball Invitational. Kyle McDonald is sports fan who loves the Chicago Cubs. Follow him on Twitter at @kylesportsbias