Denver got a Mean Green monkey off its back Saturday, winning for the first time in six tries against defending Sun Belt champion North Texas — and cementing a commanding West Division lead in the process.
The Pioneers bounced back impressively from an early 11-3 deficit, winning convincingly at home by a final margin of 80-67. Junior guard Brian Stafford, seen below battling UNT’s Josh White for a loose ball, led the way with 21 points.
The victory, combined with Arkansas State’s win later Saturday at Arkansas-Little Rock, means Denver now leads by three games in the loss column over its nearest competitors in the Sun Belt West. Midway through its 16-game Sun Belt season, Denver is 7-1 in conference play; every other team in the division has at least 4 league losses.
That includes North Texas, whose league record fell to 5-4 with the defeat at Magness Arena, where UNT had won in 2 of its last 3 tries — a rarity among DU opponents. This year’s incarnation of the Mean Green have not exactly been road warriors, however. UNT is 4-0 at home in conference play, but just 1-4 on the road.
That said, UNT is 16-6 overall, and boasts the Sun Belt’s second-highest RPI rating at #129. (Denver, despite its recent success, remains mired in the 200s.) The North Texas program has also been something akin to kryptonite for Joe Scott’s squad, winning the teams’ last five straight meetings prior to Saturday — including in the semifinals of the Sun Belt Tournament last March, ending Denver’s season. So this was, in several ways, a statement win for the Pioneers.
“This is a team that’s been on top of our league for the past few years,” Stafford said after the game. “We did a good job preparing, and it feels really good to come out and play well against a really good team, and get the win here at home. It’s big for us.”
In addition to Stafford’s 21 points, four other Pioneers also scored in double figures: Chris Udofia with 15 points; Chase Hallam, 13; Tyler Thalken, 13; and Trevor Noonan, 10.
“It is important for us to get contributions from everyone, and that happened across the board today,” Coach Scott said, echoing a theme of recent weeks as increased contributions have helped Denver win 9 out of its last 10 games after a 2-9 start.
Scott singled out Noonan, pictured above, for praise after the game. With Andrew Hooper out due to a concussion, Scott had said beforehand that Noonan would need to help fill in the void, and the redshirt sophomore forward delivered. In addition to his 10 points, he had 4 rebounds and 3 assists.
“I put a lot of pressure on [Noonan] during the week,” Scott said, “because we’ve worked hard to put ourselves in this position. Guys get hurt in college basketball, [other] guys have to step up. … Noonan came in today and he gave us a lift.”
Udofia, meanwhile, was fantastic again, continuing his rise to stardom with the Pioneers. The freshman had 15 points, 8 rebounds and 5 assists and no turnovers, and he punctuated the win with a thunderous, highlight-reel dunk in the final minute, pushing the Pioneers to the 80-point mark for the first time all season.
Those 80 points were no coincidence. Denver scored a phenomenal 1.382 points per possession Saturday, virtually matching its season-high 1.383 PPP in a 38-point win against Arkansas State nine days earlier. Thus, despite its usual slow pace (58 possessions), Denver was able to light up the scoreboard.
The beginning of the game hardly suggested such an auspicious result. Indeed, it looked almost like a mirror image of the opening minutes of Denver’s previous home game, against Arkansas State, in which DU’s offense could do no wrong in the early going. In that game, the Pioneers jumped out to a 22-4 lead and never looked back. Against North Texas on Saturday, the Pioneers committed three early turnovers, seemed unable to get anything going on offense in the opening minutes, and kept settling for threes, missing most of them. Denver went 1-4 from the field — all from 3-point range — prior to the first TV timeout at the 15:10 mark. North Texas led 11-3 at that point.
“At that timeout,” Stafford said, “everyone got together and said we’ve got to pick up our level of alertness of defense and start playing. We’ve shown a lot of poise by not letting those bad stretches get to us the last few games, and I think we did a good job of that again tonight by responding to that good run they started out with, and playing well the rest of the game.”
Indeed, Denver quickly calmed down after the TV timeout, began running its offense more effectively and methodically, started defending North Texas better, and stopped throwing the ball away. The Pioneers would commit three more turnovers the entire rest of the game.
Within less than two minutes after the 11-3 TV timeout, Denver had cut the lead to 11-9. They trailed by between one and four points for the next four minutes, then tied things up at 21-21 with 9:06 left in the half on a layup by Noonan. North Texas regained the lead, 23-21, at the 7:59 mark, but Denver tied it again at 23-23 with 7:41 left, then took the lead, 26-23, on a three-pointer by Thalken with 7:08 to go.
The Pioneers would not trail again.
“What we’ve learned is, games aren’t won in the first four minutes,” Scott said after the game. “They got off to a good start, we didn’t. Turnovers — three turnovers in the first four minutes. That lent itself to not shooting well, not playing well. But I thought we came out of that timeout huddle, and from that moment on, we played pretty well.”
“I think as the game went on, we got better,” Scott added. “We got stronger, which is important to me, because when you see your team getting stronger as the game goes along, it says something — maybe you’re growing up a little bit. You’re getting older, you’re getting a little more mature.”
At halftime, the Pioneers led 39-34, thanks to five points by Noonan in the final 2 1/2 minutes (a three-pointer at 2:30 and a layup at 0:47), followed by a pair of free throws with 0.3 seconds left by Kyle Lewis — gifts from an ill-advised foul by UNT’s White (who led the Mean Green with 15 points) on a near-buzzer shot that appeared destined to miss anyway.
After North Texas pulled within 41-38 early in the second half, the Hallam brothers led Denver to a 48-38 lead (4 points by Travis, 3 by Chase between 16:31 and 14:25). North Texas cut it back to 5, however, and the score hovered around there for quite a while. It seemed like the Mean Green were poised to go on a mini-run at any time and retake the lead; DU’s edge did not feel remotely safe.
Then, after the nine minute mark, Denver began to pull away. A pair of three-pointers by Brian Stafford at 8:26 and Chase Hallam at 7:43 put Denver up 61-49, and when Tyler Thalken added another #superhoop at 6:16, it was 66-51 and the game was essentially over.
“I thought the entire 20 minutes of the second half, we played extremely well on both ends of the court,” Scott said. “And it wasn’t just one guy, it was everybody.”
North Texas committed 12 turnovers to Denver’s 6, and Denver scored 18 points off turnovers, to North Texas’s 5. That was in stark contrast to Denver’s road loss to Middle Tennessee State last Saturday, when Denver committed 20 turnovers.
“That loss kind of hurt, because it was a hard-fought game but we didn’t really play well,” Stafford said. “We kind of went away from our core principles, went away from the way we were supposed to be playing, and didn’t play well together. So it was good to come out and put that one behind us, and play well against a tough opponent, because we needed to win this one.”
Of the points-off-turnovers differential, Scott said, “If you turn them over and you can capitalize, and then you don’t turn it over, you’re really getting double the bang for your buck. So that’s, again, why it’s critical to take care of the basketball. Take care of the basketball, play good defense, and then you’re going to win that points-off-turnovers battle without even trying to concentrate on it. Just take care of the ball.”
Scott said the Pioneers showed they had learned from the tough loss a week earlier.
“I was hopeful that [the MTSU] game would help us, and I think we came out today and showed that it did,” he said. “And that’s a sign of a team that’s growing up. They understand, they didn’t hang their heads, and we actually learned from it.”
Now, he said, the Pioneers will need to continue to apply those lessons as they head into a critical two-game road trip against the Arkansas schools, who are presently DU’s principal West Division competitors, along with North Texas (who the Pios will face again, in Denton, in both teams’ regular-season finale February 26). Arkansas-Little Rock, whom Denver visits Thursday, took the Pioneers to overtime in their previous meeting. Arkansas State, the Pioneers’ Saturday opponent, lost at Magness by 38, but is a much better team than they played that day, according to Scott, and will likely be out for revenge.
If Denver wins those games, and if Florida Atlantic — which lost its first Sun Belt game of the year Saturday, to Western Kentucky — wins its next two, at North Texas and vs. Florida International, the clash between DU and FAU at Magness on Thursday night, February 10, could be rather epic. Denver would be 9-1 in conference, FAU 10-1, with the league’s regular-season championship (and NIT autobid) potentially on the line.
Perhaps more likely is a scenario wherein Denver splits the Arkansas games, and FAU loses at North Texas (which is unbeaten at home) but beats FIU. In that case, the teams would be 8-2 and 9-2, and still fighting for the very same prize — first place in the Sun Belt overall. Indeed, unless one team sweeps its next two games while the other is swept, DU and FAU will be battling for the overall conference lead when they meet.
Of course, all of that is looking much too far ahead of Joe Scott’s tastes. Asked Saturday if he could comment on the Pioneers’ hefty West Division lead, he responded flatly, “No.”
“We just have to stay focused on us and what we’ve been doing,” Scott said. He added, referring to the team’s now-distant 2-9 start, that “sometimes adversity, when you can fight through it, keeps your head on your shoulders. You’ve seen the bottom, so now, when you’re playing better, you don’t sit there and jump for joy when you start to play better. You sort of keep an even keel. And that’s what we need to do in February, so we can concentrate on getting better.”
“They’re all going to be hard in February, that’s for sure,” Scott added. That might be a slight overstatement, but it will definitely be a tough month. Of Denver’s first eight conference games (one in December, seven in January), five were at home — and one of the road games was at the conference’s worst team, Louisiana-Monroe. In addition, two of the home games, the Arkansas State rout and Saturday’s game against North Texas, gave Denver a distinct scheduling advantage, as their opponent was coming off a Thursday road game while Denver was coming off a bye. That advantage was exacerbated in North Texas’s case, as flight delays resulted in the Mean Green not arriving in Denver until 11:00 PM Friday night instead of mid-afternoon as planned.
The schedule will not offer any more such gifts. Of Denver’s remaining eight regular-season games, just 3 are at home, versus 5 on the road. After the Arkansas road trip and the FAU home showdown, Denver will visit Troy, host Louisiana-Monroe and South Alabama, then finish with road games against Louisiana-Lafayette and North Texas. Given the apparent level of parity in the Sun Belt this season — all but 3 of the 12 teams are somewhere between 6-4 and 3-6 right now — only one of those eight games, at home vs. ULM, sounds like a reasonably “safe bet” for a Denver win. In all of the others, anything could happen.
That said, Denver’s fate will likely come down to their ability to win on the road. That, of course, has been a major, well-documented Achilles’ heel of the Pioneers, seemingly until earlier this month, when DU swept then-reeling Western Kentucky (a team that suddenly looks dangerous for Sun Belt tourney purposes) and UL-Monroe on January 6-8. But then, of course, Pioneers lost to Middle Tennessee a week ago, seemingly losing focus and failing to execute, as Stafford said. Now the big question is, which road team will show up going forward? The one that swept WKU and ULM, or the one that laid an egg in Murfeesboro?
If Denver continues to “hold serve” at home (including a win over FAU), a 3-2 road record the rest of the way would guarantee the Pioneers the West Division title, though it might not be enough for the overall championship and NIT autobid, depending on what FAU does. A 2-3 road record, or 3-2 with a home loss to FAU, might well be enough for a top 2 seed in the division, which gives Denver a bye into the quarterfinals.
Scott, of course, is taking things one game at a time. “I think we’re going into Februrary the right way,” he said, “and we’ll see what February does for us.”