LAS CRUCES, N.M.
— The most remarkable Grand Canyon comeback turned into the most devastating loss Thursday night at New Mexico State.
After GCU sophomore Damari Milstead
's scored twice off steals in 12 seconds to give the Lopes a lead, New Mexico State sophomore Johnny McCants drained a half-court shot at the buzzer to crush GCU 77-75 in front of a Pan American Center crowd of 5,482.
The Lopes went from high to low swifter than a siren, crashing emotionally after nearly pulling off their first victory on the WAC champ's court. GCU (9-6, 2-1 WAC) won the boards, limited turnovers and produced balanced scoring to achieve all of its pregame goals. The Lopes even came up with clutch plays in the 2018 WAC Tournament championship game rematch but had no answer for a 50-foot shot by a player who had missed five of seven free throws.
"I'm proud of the way our guys played," GCU head coach Dan Majerle
said after a game with 11 ties and 13 lead changes. "We played hard. They're heartbroken right now.
"We say this a lot, but we're getting closer. That's just a hard way to lose, man. You don't know what to tell the guys because a guy throws it half court in. We just have to let it go."
The Lopes (9-7, 2-1 WAC) were trailing 74-69 with 1:47 to go but Milstead scored six unanswered points, starting with a floater a minute before his amazing late-game sequence. NMSU led 74-71 when Milstead's stunting ball pressure prompted All-WAC point guard A.J. Harris to cough up his dribble to Milstead, who darted off to a breakaway layup with 25 seconds remaining.
After the ensuing inbound, Milstead poked the ball loose from behind Harris in the backcourt and to teammate Oscar Frayer
, who fed it back to Milstead for a go-ahead layup and a 75-74 lead with 13 seconds remaining. NMSU went to the free throw line on the ensuing possession but Terrell Brown missed both attempts, leaving GCU ahead with 6.6 seconds remaining.
The Aggies (12-4, 1-1) then were forced to take a foul, putting GCU senior guard Trey Drechsel
on the line in the bonus situation with 3.3 seconds go to. Drechsel missed the first free throw and the carom went to McCants, a 6-foot-7, 225-pound player who dribbled three times ahead on the left side before launching the shot shy of the half-court line, where a mid-court celebration pile ensued. It was the worst of ways for GCU to land No. 2 on SportsCenter's Top 10 and dot other national media replays.
"I've been doing it for 27 years and nothing comes to mind being a part of a shot like that to win a game or to lose a game," NMSU head coach Chris Jans said.
""We found our way into Aggie lore. People around here talk about the stories of this game and that game and I love hearing them. I hear about past big games and big shots. Tonight will be one that anyone who was in the building will remember it for a long long time."
Junior guard Carlos Johnson
led GCU's scoring with an aggressive and efficient 16 points, his third consecutive double-digit scoring effort off the bench. The Lopes put four scorers in double figures for the second consecutive game with Frayer adding 15 and Milstead and senior Gerard Martin
each scoring 13, a season high for Martin. Sophomore center Alessandro Lever
, GCU's leading scorer on the season, was limited to eight points on 3-of-12 shooting against NMSU center Ivan Aurrecoechea, who made 10 of 14 shots for 20 points after going scoreless in the previous game. He also grabbed a season-high tying 11 rebounds.
The Lopes experienced the battle they expected with neither team ever leading by more than six points. GCU's test was made tougher by the loss of senior power forward Matt Jackson
, who injured a rib in practice this week. His defensive presence was key to the Lopes' best defensive stretch of the season, when they kept the previous five opponents to 39.7 percent shooting from the field. NMSU shot 50 percent on Thursday, scoring most of its points in the paint with 40 there.
Each team had as many fouls (42) as answers for one another in a physical game but the Aggies shot better from 3-point range than normal, hitting 9 of 21 after coming into the game with a season clip of 31.5 percent. Lever and Drechsel were 0 for 10 combined on 3s but Frayer and Martin each made three 3s. An ankle sprain sidelined Martin for the final 5:13 of the game.
NMSU ranks in the top 10 nationally for offensive and defensive rebounding percentages but GCU won the boards 37-32. It was the first time this season that the Lopes lost a game in which it outrebounded its opponents. Displaying its gang glass work, eight Lopes players grabbed nine of the team's 10 offensive rebounds in the second half. Drechsel, a guard, led GCU in rebounding for a second consecutive game, following his 14-rebound game Saturday against Seattle with eight on Thursday at NMSU.
"If we win the rebounding battle, we're going to win the war," Majerle said. "Usually that happens, but a half-court shot stopped that. I thought our guys did a better job of really concentrating and getting the rebounds, especially in the second half."
There were fewer offensive board chances for the Aggies in the second half, when they made 59 percent of their shots with Aurrecoechea erasing GCU's 41-38 halftime lead by making all seven of his shot attempts near the rim in the second half.
A pair of 3s gave NMSU its largest lead of the game, 59-53, with 9:37 to go but the Lopes responded out of a Majerle time out with two big plays by freshman guard Tim Finke
--- a 3-pointer off strong ball movement and a steal that set up a Johsnon fastbreak layup. The teams traded the lead five times in the final 7:26 with Milstead scoring nine of the Lopes' final 13 points to thrill a full section of Havocs who dotted the NMSU arena's "Whiteout" with purple.
"Damari has been really good, and he just gets better," Majerle said. "Just a sophomore, he does a really good job of running our team. He's a good individual defender and has a knack for the big plays. I'm proud of him."
With Cal State Bakersfield moving to 3-0 in WAC play, GCU slides to second place as it heads to Edinburg, Texas, for a Saturday game at Texas-Rio Grande Valley (9-9, 1-1).
"We've got to get our heads up," Majerle said. "We've got to play Saturday."
Follow Paul Coro on Twitter: @paulcoro.