Putting their dismal 2-9 start further in the rearview mirror, the Denver Pioneers bookended the New Year’s holiday with a pair of home wins Thursday and Sunday to start the Sun Belt Conference season 2-0 and extend their overall winning streak to 4.
The story of the first game, 65-52 over Louisiana-Lafayette, was Denver building a lead and successfully salting away a game in the final minutes. The story of the second game, a 72-70 overtime thriller over Arkansas-Little Rock, was the Pioneers overcoming adversity to pull out a game they nearly lost after leading by double digits.
On Thursday against ULL, the Pioneers led by 23-10 early and 33-21 at halftime, and appeared to be on cruise control, heading toward an easy win. But a nearly five-minute scoring drought starting at the 11:50 mark of the second half allowed the Ragin’ Cajuns back into the game, pulling within two points at 43-41 at 7:30 to go, and within 53-50 at the final TV timeout with 3:25 remaining.
Then Denver took over. In contrast to the December home win over Cal State Northridge, in which the Pioneers let the Matadors hang around into the game’s final moments, DU went on a 9-0 run — keyed by a Travis Hallam three-pointer, free throws by Kyle Lewis and Tyler Thalken, and key offensive fouls drawn by Thalken and Justin Coughlin — to put the game away.
“It’s good to be 1-0,” Scott said after the game, referring to the Pioneers’ record in conference play.
“I was happy the way we started the game, and I was happy the last four minutes,” he said. “We stopped them and forced turnovers, and then executed on the offensive end and made our foul shots — we did the things you’ve got to do to make yourself win.” Denver was, indeed, a perfect 14-of-14 from the free throw line Thursday.
The late run to put the game away “says our team’s growing and maturing,” Scott said.
“This was big for our guys tonight,” he added. “We battled and we fought the whole game, and you have to give credit to our guys down the stretch because they did the things it takes to win. … I am really happy and proud of these guys for this one.”
The Hallam brothers, Chase and Travis, led the way with 13 points apiece, while Tyler Thalken continued to emerge as a major factor for Denver. He had nine points, five rebounds, and several crucial defensive plays late. “It’s definitely very gratifying,” Thalken said of his emergence. “I was kind of thrust into the situation with injuries, and I like to think that I’ve risen to the occasion.”
Thalken is just one example of the recent trend toward multiple players contributing every night. “Three games isn’t a habit, but we’re getting contributions from more guys,” Scott said. “And it’s not just scoring. It’s guys drawing some key charges, making some key defensive plays. … We seem as though we’ve flipped that around over the last two weeks. … We’ve been doing pretty well, and if three’s not a habit, maybe four is.”
The “habit” of balance contributions certainly continued Sunday, with Thalken (a career high 14 points), Chase Hallam (also 14), Brian Stafford (15), Chris Udofia (10) and Andrew Hooper (10) all scoring in double figures. The game’s storyline was quite a bit different, though.
After rallying from an early 8-2 deficit, Denver led for the bulk of the first half, building its edge to 29-22 shortly before halftime, and then 40-28 with 15:39 left in the second half. But then Denver went cold, and Arkansas-Little Rock gradually chipped away, pulling within 44-43 with 6:24 left.
Denver, however, then built its edge back to 55-50 with a minute left, and appeared poised to ice the game at the free-throw line. Remarkably, however, although DU shot a respectable 6-of-8 from the line in the final 33.1 seconds, UALR still managed to send the game to overtime, thanks to a series of unfortunate events (from a Pioneer perspective). Coach Scott chalked it up largely to bad luck.
First, after a DU free throw made it a 56-50 game, UALR’s D’Andre Williams drained a three-pointer with 25.7 left, cutting the lead back to three. Denver built it back to 57-53 at the line, then defended the ensuing possession well — but UALR’s Matt Mouzy banked home an absurd, desperation circus-shot three-pointer, practically falling out of bounds as hit took it, with 12.4 left, and suddenly it was a one-point game.
Brian Stafford nailed two free throws to build the lead back to 3, and then Chase Hallam tried to foul Solomon Bozeman before he could take a 3-pointer with 4.4 seconds left. But the refs called a shooting foul on Bozeman’s heave from 40 feet, which he obviously “attempted” solely because he saw the foul coming. Bozeman only hit 2 of 3 from the line, and it was back to a 1-point game. Again, Denver hit both at the line, for a 61-58 lead. And that’s where things got really wild. The video tells the story:
Afterward, Scott would cite Chase Hallam’s heads-up effort to deflect the ball — which backfired when it bounced out of bounds and gave UALR a better inbounding position — a classic example of “bad luck” in those final seconds. In any event, Alex Garcia-Mendoza took advantage, sending them game to overtime on his #superhoop buzzer-beater.
Denver faced still more adversity in overtime, as UALR jumped to as much as a four-point lead. But the Pioneers fought back, and with 1:18 left, held a 69-67 lead. Then the referees made a questionable foul call against the Pioneers on a basket by Eric Kibi with 1:09 left, giving the Trojans an and-one, which they converted for a 70-69 lead. No similar call was forthcoming on the other end when Chase Hallam missed a shot amid a similar scrum, and the ball went out of bounds, back to UALR. But good interior defense by DU led to a travel by Mouzy with 22.8 ticks left, setting up the final sequence:
“I give our guys a lot of credit for fighting through a lot of bad luck,” Scott said. “Our guys kept their heads in the game…and I think you saw a pretty poised team there, executing in overtime as things weren’t going our way.”
“I’m happy for our guys because they stuck with it today, and it’s a good win for us.”
“We had the lead most of the game,” Scott added. “We had that game under control, I thought. We played extremely well. We took care of the basketball.” Even when UALR rallied, “we played like a poised, confident team to stay with it and come back and take the lead, and then make some plays to win the game.”
Now come a pair of big road tests, at Western Kentucky (5-8, RPI #144, BBState #148) Thursday and at Louisiana-Monroe (4-11, RPI #323, BBState #318) Saturday. A win over WKU would be a statement for the Pioneers, but a loss would be forgivable. A win over ULM is critical to show that Denver is ready to put its road struggles in the Sun Belt behind.
“We’ve gotta be the kind of team that can stay with it [and hang around in close games] on the road,” Scott said Sunday. “And I’m hopeful that we’re a better road team this year. I think we might have the ability to be a better road team. But we’re going to start to find out on Thursday.”
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