Louisville coach Rick Pitino called Grand Canyon’s home crowd the toughest he’s ever faced.
Arizona coach Sean Miller saw and, more correctly, heard the same — it just came on the Wildcats’ home court at McKale Center in Tucson. The No. 19 Wildcats, like the Cardinals, defeated Dan Majerle’s Antelopes 64-54 on Wednesday, but the UA coach made sure to praise his opponent and its fans following the win.
“Dan Majerle does a great job coaching. He got three or four great shots off of timeouts,” Miller said. “We kind of knew that, in scouting them. He gets the most out of his team. Like I said, they’re the hardest-playing team we’ve played this season. You start talking about (previous opponents) Butler, who they are, Michigan State, who they are — Grand Canyon, they play hard.
“The other thing is, in my eight years, I’ve never seen a student section in McKale filled with the visitors. They had a whole section,” Miller added. “You could hear them cheering. You can tell they have a great spirit about what they’re doing.”
Sure, Arizona’s student section was more sparse than usual with winter break just beginning.
But there was truth to Miller’s compliments about the rowdy visiting crowd, and in how Grand Canyon played the Wildcats. GCU effectively locked up likely 2017 NBA lottery pick Lauri Markkanen, who went 3-for-12 from the floor for 11 points. It also held the Wildcats to 43 percent shooting with four made three and forced 19 Arizona turnovers.
The Antelopes were within four points, 44-40, with 10 minutes to play before Arizona responded with a run to keep out of reach. Grand Canyon’s DeWayne Russell scored 19 on 8-for-21 shooting and added four assists, not quite the 42-point night he had against Louisville.
Still, the Wildcats, who were led by freshman Kobi Simmons’ 13 points, were happy to get a game out of it.
“It was a game that’s really going to help our basketball team grow and mature,” Miller said. “It’s as physical a game that we’ve been in this year. I think it caught us off guard for a while.”
And while Pitino cracked a few weeks ago that he did Majerle a favor by visiting GCU, Miller went a different route.
“We didn’t play Grand Canyon to, like, help build their program or do them a favor,” he said. “If playing us helps build their program, great. We played their team because we respect them.”