Denver opened up an 11-point first-half lead over favored Portland of the WCC, but allowed it to quickly evaporate, then faded down the stretch as the Pilots’ hot shooting led them to a 71-64 win at Magness Arena.
Pioneers head coach Joe Scott said the offense played well, but “our defense let us down,” expressing frustration with the team’s inability to stop Portland’s Jared Stohl and Nemanja Mitrovic — who combined for 34 points, the bulk of them coming on 9 three-pointers in 15 attempts — from shooting the 3. Scott said denying Stohl and Mitrovic was a central focus of Denver’s scouting report for Portland, but the players didn’t execute their plan to contain those two hot shooters.
Scott said the players’ instructions were, “Don’t even let them shoot them. … It doesn’t mean, be on the guy, contest the shot afterwards. It means, don’t let [Stohl] and don’t let [Mitrovic] even get ‘em off. And we did. We let those guys shoot the ball.” Their hot shooting helped lead Portland to percentages of 51.3% from the field and 66.7% from three-point range.
Even so, Scott was not overly discouraged with the loss — notwithstanding that it dropped Denver to 2-8 on the season. “I think we played more confidently today,” he said. “We did what we needed to do; we actually played pretty well,” but weren’t able to make the key plays necessary to win the game down the stretch.
The Pioneers’ offense was certainly much improved, shooting a season-high 50 percent from the field — a category in which they were 7th in the nation last year, shooting 49%, but have struggled this season — and shattering their highest offensive efficiency rating of the year with 1.211 points per possession. The Pioneers had only been above 1 O-PPP in one previous game, the loss to Colorado State. (Unfortunately, the defense also turned in its least efficient night of the season by far, giving up 1.354 points per possession.)
A particular bright spot was the performance of Chase Hallam, who scored 24 points on 8-for-11 shooting from the field, and 5-for-5 from the line. After the game, Scott declared the Pioneers to be “Chase’s team” going forward.
“I’m confident that if we play the way we played today, if we keep turning the ball over [only] seven times a game, if we execute our offense — [against the] man-to-man, [today] was the nicest we’ve played this year, by far — if we do that, then we’re going to be in that position a lot,” Scott said. “We’re going to be in position to win those games … I’m confident in our guys that we are going to be in this position. And then it’s going to come down to [making key plays in crunch time]. What we’ve been working on is, trying to put ourselves in that position. Now, we’re going to go back to our core group, keep ‘em in those spots, work and develop, become Chase’s team, and we’ve got to get to work as a coaching staff on starting to teach those winning elements.”
One of the most glaring “winning elements” missing Saturday was awareness of the clock situation late in the game. With 2:01 left, a three-pointer by Trevor Noonan cut Portland’s lead to 3, and then at the 1:25 mark, Mitrovic committed an offensive foul, giving the Pioneers the ball back. Obviously, a quick shot was called for, trying to cut the lead to 5 points or perhaps 4. But instead, the Pioneers appeared to run their regular Princeton-style offense with no particular sense of urgency, ultimately ending the possession with Kyle Lewis attempting a three-pointer with four seconds on the shot clock and 0:54 on the game clock. The shot rattled out, Portland got the rebound, and the game was essentially over — not so much because of the missed shot as because of those wasted 30 seconds.
Scott acknowledged the issue, and grouped it with the other crunch-time problems he observed. “We’re going to get to work on those ‘winning things’ and we’ll get better at them,” he said.
With the most brutal part of Denver’s schedule now behind it, Scott seemed confident that Denver’s improved play — which hasn’t stopped them from losing 4 of their last 5 games, precisely the same record as in their first 5 games, but against a tougher portion of the schedule — will begin paying dividends on the scoreboard.
He said the Pioneers are done tinkering with their lineup, and will focus on helping their core players grow into their assigned roles through the final three non-conference games (at Wyoming, vs. Northern Colorado, vs. Arkansas-Pine Bluff), and then into the Sun Belt schedule. “We’re not flip-flopping anymore,” he said. “I know this is where guys need to be, this is what’s best for this team.”
Looking ahead to those final three non-conference games, followed by the holiday break, Scott said, “I feel good that, if we can maintain what we’re going over the next 10 days, … we’re going to know who we are in our first league game.”
“I think you’re going to see a little bit of a different team.”