DU Bally, official mascot of Pioneer Pulse, sez: Buy a Mid-Majority membership! Help get Kyle and Bally (the original Bally) out to DU’s Magness Arena (maybe) and the Mountain Time Zone (definitely)! Also, you get stuff! It’s like an NPR membership, except better, because it involves mid-major hoops!
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.”
Heeeere we go! Huge Sun Belt battle this afternoon, and I’ll be covering it live from Magness Arena, thanks to CoverItLive. You can join in the conversation by tweeting something “@brendanloy“; it’ll appear below. You can do this using the reply window at the bottom of this post. (NOTE: After the first tweet, you will need to retype “@brendanloy” in the window for each subsequent tweet.)
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It’s cliché to say this, and perhaps foolhardy to do so in advance, but Saturday’s game at Magness Arena against North Texas — a team that’s beaten Denver five times in a row, dating back to February 2008 — feels very much like a potential turning point in the Pioneers’ season, for good or ill.
The Mean Green are one of the few Sun Belt teams to enjoy recent success at Magness, having won 2 of the last 3 meetings there (1 of 2 during Joe Scott’s tenure), and they are still DU’s prime competition in the West Division, despite falling to 5-3 in conference with a loss last night at Louisiana-Lafayette. On Saturday, Denver will try to bounce back from its first Sun Belt loss (a week ago, at Middle Tennessee) with what would surely be its biggest Sun Belt win of the year (surpassing the road win at Western Kentucky).
The game feels like almost a “must-win” if Denver (6-1) is going to stay in the hunt for the conference’s overall regular-season championship (and NIT autobid), what with Florida Atlantic (8-0) continuing to run all over the East Division. A loss would drop Denver to 6-2, still in first place in the West, but catching FAU would look increasingly tough, and a serious slide would begin to look quite realistic. That thing Kyle Whelliston said last week about the Pios — “With Denver, we’ve seen hot starts and flame-outs before” — would really start to sting if they lose their second straight just before heading on the road to play UALR (which took DU to overtime in their first meeting) and Arkansas State (which is a much better team than they showed in getting demolished by 38 at Magness, and will be out for revenge), followed by a return home to face Florida Atlantic. Could the Pioneers slide all the way from 6-0 to 7-4 or even 6-5? It’ll start to feel distinctly possible with a loss tomorrow. Whereas a win would keep them right in the hunt for the overall Sun Belt title, and would give them a commanding lead in the West Division.
Standings aside, the game is important because North Texas is quite simply one of the best teams, and best programs, in the Sun Belt. This season, whereas the Pioneers are 6-1 in the league but just 10-10 overall, the Mean Green are just 5-3 in conference but a gaudy 16-5 overall (albeit against a somewhat easier schedule — ranked #312 to Denver’s #260). UNT has the Sun Belt’s second-best RPI, #109, just behind #97 FAU, and well above Denver’s #232. And, as noted earlier, it’s a team that has given Denver fits in recent years. The Pioneers are 1-5 against the Mean Green under Joe Scott, including the 63-56 loss in the Sun Belt semifinals that ended DU’s season last year.
However, Scott tells The Clarion that the Pioneers aren’t out for revenge, per se: “Our team doesn’t believe in the theme of revenge. Our theme is that North Texas is the best team in our league and in order to compete for league titles, we will need to compete with them.” More:
Scott acknowledged that rebounding would be a huge factor if the Pioneers want to get to 7-1 in league play. In last season’s loss, DU was outrebounded 36-27, because NTU forward George Odufuwa dominated the glass, finishing with 16 points and 13 rebounds.
Odufuwa, now a senior, is one of the hardest players to defend in the conference and has throttled Denver in the past, according to Scott.
“Odufuwa, [Tristan] Thompson and Josh White are three of the best players in conference this season,” Scott said. “They are all seniors, and they have a ton of experience.”
To win the Pioneers will need to shut down Odufuwa, who currently averages a double-double (11.5 ppg and 10.2 rpg), which won’t be easy without senior forward Andrew Hooper.
Hooper will miss the next two weeks, and possibly more, with a concussion, according to Scott.
The Pioneers are already thin down low, being without senior forward Rob Lewis all season with a leg injury.
“He [Hooper] has been our best physical defender in the low post this season,” said Scott. “He has been a consistent fighter for us in terms of getting rebounds.”
Without Hooper and Lewis, the Pioneers will need a big performance from emerging freshman Chris Udofia, who currently leads the team in blocks and has been improving on the glass.
Denver currently ranks dead last in the entire nation in both rebounds per game and rebound percentage, so that will be a huge challenge Saturday.
Meanwhile, as Denver prepares for the crucial showdown with the Mean Green, the Pioneers have been getting quite a bit of attention this week, from a CBS Sports story on the program’s rise, to a Denver Post column about Udofia, to a Rush the Court post refencing Kyle Lewis’s personal heroics in helping resuscitate a man in medical duress on campus.
If the Pios want to keep the good press coming, though, they need to keep — or rather resume — winning. It starts tomorrow at 4:00 PM. I’ll be live-blogging, so come back here then!
TUESDAY UPDATE: It sounds like this was a false alarm. Here’s the official statement from the Mountain West Board of Directors:
Over the past two days, the Board of Directors has engaged in a very thorough discussion of several key topics pertinent to the future of the Mountain West Conference. This has included, but not been limited to, issues related to television, the Bowl Championship Series and membership. The Board feels strongly the membership configuration already established going forward creates outstanding prospects for future success. In addition, we are continuing with our strategic initiatives related to our television partnerships and the MWC’s efforts to effect change in the BCS structure. The Board is excited about what is undoubtedly a bright future for the Conference.
In other words, no expansion right now. So… uh… never mind! (The WAC-enstein Zombie: IT’S ALIIIIIIIVE!!!!!!!) Original post below.
Just when it looked like the WAC might survive, shedding its status as a zombie conference in favor of just being a really bad conference, the Karl Benson #PANIC!!! Meter is back to Defcon 1 this afternoon with the news, spreading like wildfire on Twitter, that Utah State and San Jose State will apparently join a 12-team Mountain West, leaving the WAC with just three current members out of its current 9-team lineup (Idaho, Louisiana Tech and New Mexico State). With Texas State, Texas-San Antonio and Denver (non-football) set to join in 2012-13, we’re looking at a 5-football-team, 6-team-total WAC, which doesn’t meet even the newly relaxed NCAA standards.
The Mountain West, meanwhile, will have as many ex-WAC members (Boise State, Nevada, Fresno State, Utah State, San Jose State, Hawaii in football) as it does current MWC members (Air Force, San Diego State, New Mexico, Colorado State, Wyoming, UNLV). THIS IS GREAT NEWS!! FOR BOISE STATE!! [/Baghdad Bob]
Assuming these as-yet unconfirmed reports are accurate, I really can’t see how this ends well for the WAC. I suppose, in theory, Benson may be able to construct a bargain-basement conference consisting of the aforementioned Unspectacular Six plus, say, Lamar, Sam Houston State and Cal Poly (for 8 in football) plus, in the non-football ranks, Seattle, UC-Bakersfield and Utah Valley State (for 12 total). But, I mean, really?! Without Utah State as its basketball “anchor,” that conference has no real reason to exist, and “godawful” doesn’t even begin to describe its component parts. I’m not sure why anyone would want to join such a league. Surely Denver and Seattle must be on the phone today with the WCC with renewed urgency, and surely Louisiana Tech and New Mexico State must likewise be calling the Sun Belt — a good indicator, in and of itself, that Denver should perhaps reconsider its pending downgrade. As for Idaho? Sorry, guys. You’re the mini-Iowa State of this deal. Maybe the Big Sky would be interested?
Just two days after their euphoric 38-point home win over Arkansas State, the Denver Pioneers fell back to earth with a 59-49 road loss to Middle Tennessee State, ending their eight-game winning streak and giving them their first loss in Sun Belt play. I wasn’t able to watch the game, but DU committed 20 turnovers and allowed 16 offensive rebounds, which pretty much tells the tale.
Denver is now 6-1 in conference and 10-10 overall, heading into a crucial showdown next Saturday with division rival North Texas, which is 5-2 in conference and 16-4 overall, at DU’s Magness Arena. (The teams will play again in Denton, TX on February 26.) The Sun Belt West appears, for the moment anyway, to be a two-team battle between the Pioneers and the Mean Green, with Arkansas-Little Rock now having 3 losses and everyone else having 4 or more.
Denver is 6-0 in the Sun Belt, 10-9 overall — above .500 after a 2-9 start! — and riding an eight-game winning streak, their longest ever in Division I, capped by this evening’s utter demolition of Arkansas State at Magness Arena.
Just an amazing, phenomenal performance by the Pioneers, winning by 38 points — their largest margin of victory since returning to Division I in 1998-99. Needless to say, they dominated in every facet of the game, and they never let up or lost focus.
Now, 3 road games out of the next 4. And the home game? Against North Texas.
It’s #1 vs. #2 in the Sun Belt West tonight at Magness Arena, as things start getting real in conference play. Denver vs. Arkansas State might not be the Mid-Majority’s Game! Of! The! Night! (despite my dreams to the contrary), but it’s the G! O! T! N! in our hearts. Mike Jarvis, coach of the Sun Belt’s only other undefeated squad (Florida Atlantic), calls Arkansas State “one heck of a team,” and like the Pioneers (once 2-9, now 9-9), the Red Wolves are on something of a roll (10-10 after a 1-6 start). Denver is favored by a mere 2.5 points, which means Vegas believes this would basically be a pick-em game on a neutral floor. The “other” Pioneer Post, which I increasingly suspect is written in large part by robots (but I digress), calls the game “a Sun Belt bout of epic proportions.” That’s perhaps a tad overdramatic (if not oxymoronic), but we’ll go with it! It’s gonna be EPIC!!!
But the epic G! O! T! N! I! O! H! isn’t all that’s on tap tonight in the mighty, mighty Sun Belt. No-sir-ee, we’ve got a full slate of hot! hot! hot! SBC action, including some games with big implications for the Pios. If all three home teams win in UALR @ FIU, NTEX @ ULM, and of course ARST @ DEN, the Pioneers would have a three-game lead in their division by night’s end. (By contrast, if the all three road teams win, Denver would have just a one-game lead over a trio of teams — with games coming up against all three between now and February 5, and two of those three on the road.) Also, can Western Kentucky finally win an SBC game? And which of the SBC East’s three-loss teams will win the ESPN3 game, and stay nominally alive in the race to catch those 6-0 Fighting Jarvises of FAU?
(By the way, if I sound sarcastic above, I don’t mean to. I’m just feeling a bit punchy and silly. I’m genuinely excited about tonight’s game, though! My mental transition from covering a disastrous season to covering one with real potential again is just about complete. Hopefully tonight doesn’t screw that up!)
Anyway, DU’s tipoff against Arkie State is at 7pm MST. I’ll be at Magness, watching from press row and live-tweeting, as per usual. And unlike some previous scattered, multi-topic liveblogs during DU games, we’re going to try to stay (mostly) on task tonight. All of my tweets, and tweets at me, will display in the Cover It Live window below. So will tweets from anyone on Kyle Whelliston’s Sun Belt list. Meanwhile, to keep us abreast of the broader mid-major picture, any tweets by @midmajority, or at him, will also appear, as will tweets by @bbstate (final CBB game scores) and @pixlvision (links to games that are watchable online).
will start started at 2:00 PM MST. The evening’s first SBC game, UALR @ FIU, tips at 5:00 PM. That’s also approximately when Bally and I will be leaving downtown and heading over to DU.
You can join in the conversation by tweeting something “@brendanloy“; it’ll appear below. You can do this using the reply window at the bottom of this post. (NOTE: After the first tweet, you will need to retype “@brendanloy” in the window for each subsequent tweet.) OR, you can comment using CoverItLive’s built-in commenting system. I have to approve your comment before it will appear, though, so there may be a delay; tweeting at me is faster.
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Last month, desperate for any spark amid a dismal 2-8 start, Denver coach Joe Scott tried to light a fire under sophomore forward Chase Hallam by referring to the Pioneers as “Chase’s team.” On Saturday, in front of the largest home crowd to watch a DU game during Scott’s four-year tenure, Hallam had an chance to dramatically seal Denver’s seventh straight win with a buzzer-beating layup. “I don’t think you can get a better shot” than the one Hallam had, Scott would say later. “We had a wide-open drive there.”
The shot missed.
Instead of a wild celebration at the end of regulation, the game went to overtime, all tied at 65-65. And Hallam resolved not to squander another opportunity.
“I thought I had the game-winner, and since I didn’t hit that, I had to make up for it,” he said of his 10 points in overtime — the bulk of the team’s 14 total in the extra period, and nearly half of his 22 points in the game.
Led by its two players with double-doubles on the night, Hallam (22 points, 10 rebounds) and freshman Chris Udofia (21 points, 12 rebounds), Denver outscored Florida International 14-5 in overtime — Udofia had the 4 Pioneer points in OT not scored by Hallam — to beat FIU, 79-70.
“Two double-doubles at the University of Denver,” said Scott. “Doesn’t happen too often.” Indeed, Hallam and Udofia are the first pair of Denver players to get double-doubles in the same game since Yemi Nicholson and DaShawn Walker did it against Troy in 2006, according to the DU SID.
The win boosted the Pioneers to 5-0 in the Sun Belt and 9-9 overall, with a seven-game winning streak since starting the season 2-9. Moreover, thanks to a North Texas loss Saturday to Troy, Denver now leads the Sun Belt West Division by two games. That is to say, every other team in the division has at least two losses, while DU remains undefeated.
The victory follows on the heels of Denver’s first road sweep since 2003, when the Pioneers won at Western Kentucky at Louisiana-Monroe last weekend, and Scott was quick to point that out. “We won two on the road, and today we did what we had to do to make those two road wins really, really important. When you win, and you win road games, the games get bigger, and this was a big game today, and we held serve on our home court.”
Florida International, playing without second-leading scorer DeJuan Wright, fell to 3-2 in the Sun Belt after a 3-0 start. The Golden Panthers, who are something of a “celebrity” team in the Sun Belt because of their head coach, former Detroit Pistons star Isiah Thomas, whiffed on a tough two-game, three-day road trip to North Texas and Denver. FIU is 8-9 overall.
Whether because of Thomas, or good promotion by the university, or the team’s hot conference start, or some combination thereof, the crowd was almost hockey-like for the Pioneers, who never come close to filling the 7,200-seat Magness Arena.
Announced attendance was 6,244, officially the fourth-largest crowd ever to watch a men’s basketball game at Magness Arena and the largest since January 2006. The true number in attendance was almost certainly not quite that high, but it was definitely a very large crowd for a DU hoops game — and a loud and enthusiastic crowd, too, especially down the stretch.
It was the first home game since the end of the long interterm break that stretches from before Thanksgiving until after New Year’s, and the students’ presence was obvious, from the full band, cheerleaders and dance team to the spandex guys:
“Great crowd today,” said Scott. “School’s back in session, you have the band here, you have the cheerleaders here, you have the dance team, you have a good crowd, and you have a 5-0 basketball team here at the University of Denver.”
Udofia said the crowd “definitely motivated all of us. … The support and fan base just keeps growing every game. We like it.”
The crowd witnessed an exciting game, even if some statistics belie that fact. The Pioneers only trailed for 22 seconds the entire contest, leading Denver Post reporter Irv Moss to ask if that statistic “makes it sound easy.” Replied Hallam: “Oh man, it was definitely not an easy game. [FIU] played real well. They played hard on defense and their offense executed really well.” Indeed, it was an offensively efficient game on both ends, with Denver scoring a season-high 1.166 points per possession, while the Panthers scored 1.074 PPP.
For a while, it looked like Denver might win fairly easily, as the Pioneers led by as many as 8 points in the first half. But FIU pulled within 5 at halftime — it would have been 3 if not for a rare transition basked by the Pioneers at the buzzer, courtesy of a long pass to Chris Udofia (see above) — and then took advantage of Denver’s second-half shooting woes, an all-too-familiar pattern for the Pioneers. DU shot 52% in the first half, but just 29.2% in the second half.
“The ball didn’t go in the basket, but we took care of the ball,” said Coach Scott, noting Denver’s 4 second-half turnovers and 10 overall. “If the ball had gone in the basket in the second half, we would have won in regulation. … Overall, we played really well, but the Basketball Gods were saying the ball’s not going in. … Give [FIU] credit for taking advantage of us not shooting well.” Indeed, the Panthers shot a torrid 59.1% in the second half, allowing them to stay in the game and ultimately send it to overtime.
FIU’s brief stint in the lead, all 22 seconds of it, bookended the game’s last TV timeout. The Panthers went up 59-58 on a layup by Phil Gary with 4:03 left. After the stoppage, Brian Stafford drew a foul and went to the line with 3:41 left for a 1-and-1. He appeared to miss the first shot, but was bailed out by a Panther lane violation — a critical play in the game, as it turned out. Given a second chance, Stafford nailed two free throws to give DU a 60-59 lead.
After a quick FIU miss on the other hand, Chris Udofia drew a foul and hit 1 of 2 free throws for a 61-59 lead. After Udofia blocked a Panthers shot with 2:49 left, it looked like perhaps Denver would start to put the game away — but the teams traded missed shots and turnovers for the next two minutes until, with 38 seconds to go, a Travis Hallam layup gave the Pioneers a 63-59 lead. The crowd came alive on that possession as it rarely does for a basketball game at Magness Arena, and was veritably electric down the stretch and into overtime.
After some foul shots by both teams, it was 64-61 Denver with 32 seconds left. Gary made a virtually uncontested layup for FIU to cut DU’s lead to 64-63, and Denver called timeout, leading me to tweet, “Dramatic & exciting ending in front of a big, enthusiastic crowd. Denver up 1, 25.2 left. College basketball!!”
After another 1-for-2 at the free-throw line — something that happened three times in the game’s waning moments for Denver — FIU got the ball back with 22 seconds to go. Another relatively easy layup for FIU, this one by Eric Frederick, tied the game at 65-65.
Denver’s defense in that final minute of regulation was Scott’s chief complaint after the game. “At the end of the game, we went away from our defense a little bit. We didn’t execute.” Still, the Pioneers had a chance to win it, either at the free-throw line — those three late misses looming large — or with Hallam’s potential buzzer-beater. Instead, those chances failed, and the game went to overtime.
In OT, the Pioneers simply dominated, jumping out to a 69-65 lead, then scoring 10 unanswered points after Phil Gary’s three-pointer cut it to 69-68 with 3:29 left. Denver led 79-68 and won 79-70.
“Our team showed a tone of poise,” said Brian Stafford, who scored 15 points. “In the last four games, we’ve had two overtime wins, and two [close games] down the stretch. So we’ve showed a really good amount of poise, where teams come back at us, and we’re just coming together and keeping our heads and finishing the games to get those wins.”
Scott, who never outwardly panicked during the team’s 2-9 start, seemed to caution Saturday against overexubrance amid the winning streak. “Nothing’s ever as bad as it seems, and now, nothing’s ever as good as it seems,” he said. The key, he said, is that Hallam brothers are now playing consistently, Chris Udofia and Andrew Hooper — who sub in and out — have both become reliable forces down low, Stafford is improving, “and then our role players have figured out their roles. And now you’ve got a team that knows who they are and is playing like they know who they are.”
Chase Hallam, channeling his coach, said, “We’re at seven in a row, and it’s all because we have five guys contributing each night. It’s not just one or two guys now. We have five guys contributing each night, and that’s what’s paying off for us.”
Up next is a home date with Arkansas State on Thursday. Scott called it a “huge game for us,” noting, “When you’re successful, the games get bigger. … I know we’ll be ready to go.”
Denver’s planned future home, the WAC, may not be a zombie conference after all.
On Thursday, the NCAA’s Legislative Council approved and adopted “Proposal 2010-100,” abolishing the “continuity clause” that required conferences to have at least six schools that have been together in the conference for at least five years. The WAC was scheduled to lose that status in 2012 and had no hope of regaining it until 2017 at the earliest, which would have meant no automatic bids for the league till then, which would almost certainly have led to further defections and the eventual dissolution of the conference.
Instead, conferences now must simply have at least “seven active Division I members,” all of which sponsor men’s basketball, and six that sponsor at least five other sports (including football). And if a conference falls below those numbers, there’s a two-year grace period to pull themselves back up.
That gives the WAC, which is scheduled to have eight basketball members (three of them newbies) and seven football members starting in 2012-13, a bit of much-needed breathing room.
Crucially, even if the WAC loses another one of its “core” teams — like, say, if Utah State joins the Mountain West — they can simply plug in another team to replace ‘em, without it having any impact of the conference’s legal status. (Not that losing USU wouldn’t still be a big blow, but it wouldn’t be so because of NCAA legislation.)
I’m still a little unclear on whether six teams is now sufficient in football for all purposes, or whether there’s still an eight-team requirement that affects BCS non-AQ qualification and such. Either way, the WAC is still certainly going to want more members — and with the league’s stability seemingly a bit more assured now, Karl Benson thinks that may happen:
“There are schools that have indicated they are ready to accept invitations,” Benson said [Friday]. … Benson said additions could be announced as early as April 1.
While declining to name any football schools, Benson did say Seattle University, California State-Bakersfield and Utah Valley will be assessed as non-football members.
“We started the process today of evaluating a pool of potential candidates,” he said. “That’s all I can tell you. I don’t think staying at eight (members) is one of our preferred options. Our preference is to get to 10, maybe even 12.”
Multiple sources, one of which attended Friday’s meeting, told the Express-News recently the list of football candidates includes, but is not necessarily limited to, Louisiana-Lafayette, Lamar, Sam Houston State, California-Davis, Portland State and Cal Poly.
The sources also said the WAC could make fresh runs at Montana and North Texas, both of which turned down invitations last November. If Montana were to be approached again, one of the sources said, Montana State would likely be considered as well.
Needless to say, a league of Utah State, Idaho, New Mexico State, Louisiana Tech, San Jose State, Denver, Texas State, Texas-San Antonio, and — say — Seattle, CSU-Bakersfield, Portland State and Cal Poly isn’t going to set the world on fire. All the moreso if Utah State defects, replaced perhaps by Utah Valley State (which is sort of like replacing the New England Patriots with the Oakland Raiders and calling it an even trade). You know it’s a bad sign when you’re thinking that landing North Texas would be a real coup, and nabbing the dynamic duo of Montana and Montana State would mean you’ve hit the jackpot.
Still, even that fairly awful lineup of teams, or one similar, might be relatively stable enough for the WAC to stay alive — which is more than you could say a few days ago.
Benson has previously said he liked the idea of having 9 football members and 1 non-football member, for scheduling reasons, with Denver filling the latter niche. Montana’s rejection and Hawaii’s defection spoiled those best-laid plans, leaving the WAC at 7 and 1 instead. If they’re seriously considering Seattle U. and those other non-football schools, I’m guessing maybe he’s now thinking 9 in football plus 3 non-football, for 12 total. (Hence my hypothetical 12-team lineup above.)
That said, the WAC isn’t out of the woods yet, in terms of defections:
Despite the new rules, Benson acknowledged that losing more members is still a concern.
He said the WAC will keep a close eye on a Jan. 24 meeting of the Mountain West Conference, at which the league is expected to decide whether to remain at 10 members or expand to 12.
If the league chooses to expand, Utah State would likely be a strong candidate. The league could also pry a team loose from Conference USA, long considered a possible destination for Louisiana Tech.
“Unfortunately, we’re kind of held at bay until the Mountain West makes their decision,” Benson said. “Obviously there are WAC schools that might be on the list. It’s something we have to recognize as a possibility. We are certainly hoping there isn’t any further deletion.”
The key point, though, is that further “deletions” won’t necessarily be fatal, as they would have been before the NCAA made this change. So I think we can upgrade the WAC from a zombie state to critical condition.
I remain uncertain as to whether the WAC would ultimately survive a Utah State defection, as USU’s presence still feels central to the league’s rationale for continuing to exist, and if the Aggies go, maybe Louisiana Tech also jumps, and San Jose State dissolves its football program, and the whole thing goes bust.
But while uncertainties and worst-case scenarios remain, I’d now say that, unlike 48 hours ago, the odds probably favor the conference surviving at least a few more years. I’d now wager that Denver will, indeed, actually join the WAC in 2012.
From Kyle Whelliston’s Conference Shootaround today:
Sun Belt: While the local and national media fixates on Carmelo Anthony’s latest spoiled-bitch tantrum, there’s a basketball team in Denver that’s undefeated! In conference play, at least. After racking up nine losses in non-conference, the Princeton-inspired Pioneers have the Belt’s most efficient offense (1.11 points per trip), are shooting almost 61 percent from the inside the arc despite topping out at 6-foot-9, and they’ve passed the first Central Time Zone test (Western Kentucky and Monroe) with a flying color or two. It’s their best league start since the Yemi Nicholson days. The league’s power center has moved to Florida, though. The Isiah Lord Thomases at FIU and Mike Jarvises at FAU are both unbeaten in the East division. International will likely get that designation snatched tonight out at North Texas, though. The Mean Green (13-2, 2-1) haven’t played a conference game since last Wednesday’s loss at MTSU, and they’re, well, angry.
North Texas hosts FIU at 6:30 PM MST tonight. Then, FIU heads out to Denver for Saturday’s date with the Pioneers, set for 4:30 PM (part two of a men’s-women’s doubleheader that starts at 1:30). I’ll be there for the men’s game, but not in my usual spot on press row — I’ve bought tickets, and am going with a friend.
Front row, behind the home bench! Mid-major basketball rocks.
At the beginning of the season, Denver’s goal was to win a conference championship. Less than a month ago, the Pioneers were 2-9, and that goal looked very distant indeed. But six wins later — including four conference wins, two of them on the road, most recently Saturday’s 66-57 escape at Louisiana-Monroe — DU’s original goal is suddenly there for the taking.
Denver is 4-0 in Sun Belt play, which places them alone atop the West Division, and tied with East Division co-leaders Florida Atlantic (4-0) and Florida International (3-0) as the only undefeated teams in the conference. And, as luck would have it, Denver’s only meetings of the season with each of the two Florida schools are both at Magness Arena — the first of them, against Isiah Thomas-coached Florida International, this coming Saturday at 4:30 PM.
Still more scheduling luck: Denver doesn’t play again until Saturday, but FIU first has to visit Denver’s chief West Division rival, North Texas, on Thursday, before jetting to Denver for the Saturday game. So the Pioneers will be much better rested than the Golden Panthers.
Of course, in a one-bid league like the Sun Belt, regular-season standings don’t matter to NCAA Tournament invites except insofar as they affect seeding of the conference tournament. In that regard, Denver just needs to finish in the top 2 of the West Division to earn a bye into the quarterfinals.
But the Sun Belt’s regular-season champion gets an automatic bid to the NIT, so the overall #1 matters too, and we’ll be tracking that so long as Denver remains in the hunt. Right now, at least on paper, the Pioneers are in the driver’s seat. Knock on wood.
BREAKING NEWS: Denver can win on the road.
The Pioneers extended their winning streak to five games and improved to 7-9 overall, 3-0 in Sun Belt play — and, perhaps most importantly, 1-0 on the road in Sun Belt play — with a 62-59 win over traditional conference power Western Kentucky on Thursday.
“We looked like a very good basketball team tonight,” said Coach Joe Scott. “To come into Western Kentucky, and beat Western Kentucky at their place, says something about your basketball team.”
It’s just the fourth conference road win in Joe Scott’s entire four-year tenure at DU, and Denver’s fifth road win overall in its last 62 road games. And it comes against the Sun Belt’s glamour program, a school that boasts a 1971 Final Four appearance and was the 14th winningest program in Division I college basketball at the end of last season. Three years ago, WKU provided the NCAA Tournament with one of its principal shining moments with a buzzer-beating overtime 12-over-5 upset of Drake.
Denver had beaten WKU the last two seasons, but both of those games were at DU’s Magness Arena. This is the Pioneers’ first ever victory at historic Diddle Arena in Bowling Green, Kentucky.
“I’ve been coming here since 1999, and I can’t tell you how good this one feels,” Pioneer radio play-by-play man Mitch Hyder told Coach Scott after the game.
“It feels good,” Coach Scott agreed. “And we’re going to enjoy it for a little bit. … We’ve got a little time to be happy here. But sometime tomorrow, I told [the players], it’s not about being happy anymore, it’s about learning how to reward ourselves. It’s about learning how to reward this effort tonight with a similar effort on Saturday [at Louisiana-Monroe]. And we’ll get to work on that at some point tomorrow, because our guys deserve to be happy tonight.”
Denver led by 15 at halftime, and by as many as 18 points early in the second half, but nearly let the advantage slip away late, thanks in part to poor free-throw shooting down the stretch. WKU could not get closer than two, however, and Denver survived with a huge win in historic Diddle Arena.
Hyder described Denver’s first-half effort as possibly the best half of basketball the Pioneers have played during Scott’s four-year tenure.
“I thought we played really well the whole game,” Coach Joe Scott said. “We didn’t turn the ball over, and that means we were running our offense well.” He added that “tonight, obviously, was the best that [the offense has] been.”
“Everybody that played tonight contributed,” Scott said. Brian Stafford led the way with 17 points, Travis Hallam had 15, Chase Hallam had 11, and the team’s rotating interior players, Andrew Hooper and Chris Udofia, combined for 10 points (8 for Udofia, 2 for Hooper). Tyler Thalken scored 7 points and also had 5 assists against zero turnovers. Overall, the Pioneers shot 51% from the field, including 38% from three-point land. The only real blemish was the 40% free-throw shooting.
“What I told the guys at the end of the game was, ‘whale of a game,’” Scott said. Now, he added, “we’ve gotta learn how to embrace having the lead,” which includes hitting layups, open shots and free throws down the stretch. But even while allowing Western Kentucky back into the game late, he said, “[w]e put ourselves in position [to win], because we didn’t give them any easy shots.”
“Our guys have been fighting hard for this,” Scott said. “They’ve hung in there and hung in there, and scrapped and clawed. I have to say the same for our coaches. It wasn’t easy in late November and early December, but our guys have a lot of character, and the adversity, I think, has done something for us. And now we’re just going to keep doing what we’re doing. We’ve put ourselves in good position, there’s no question about that.”
As great of a win as it was Denver, it was an equally bad loss for Western Kentucky. The once-proud program is now 5-9 overall, 0-2 in the Sun Belt, and and has lost 4 straight and 8 out of its last 10. The Hilltopper Haven message board was in open revolt last night, and someone started a “Fire Ken McDonald Now” blog in the wake of the defeat. After the game, McDonald acknowledged the mounting pressure as the Hilltoppers continue their slide. Some quotes from after the game:
There’s always pressure. That’s my job. That’s why there aren’t many division one coaching jobs and there aren’t many as good as this one. It’s my job and the staff’s job to get us through this, and we’re going to. Would everybody like it sooner? Absolutely. But we’re going to find something to build on from this. …
It is our job to try to keep the negative part out of our guys’ heads and that is tough. It’s tough in a small town and obviously with a program that is used to winning.
The guys have to put their foot down and we all want that. You saw a team in the second half that kind of put their foot down. But having the toughness to understand that no games are going to be easy games (is key).
I want the guys understanding that this is not good enough and I do want them to come out with a chip on their shoulder. Stop being the hunted and go out and be the aggressor and start hunting. That’s a mental mindset. The mental to the physical game is four to one. We have to get that mental mindset right and that’s the biggest challenge right now.
Just stay with us. We have an incredible fanbase. You’ve got people that will be very supportive no matter what and some will jump off the wagon. That comes with the territory, but put that on me. Don’t give up on the players. As leaders of the program, we’ll get this thing turned around. These guys are working hard, more than you know behind the scenes and eventually it’ll show up in the win column.
We call ourselves a program. The fanbase has to stay with us and stay positive. We all want more, we all demand more. But we’re going to get this thing turned around.
The Denver Pioneers face a huge road test this evening, as they travel to historic Diddle Arena in Bowling Green, KY, to face the Sun Belt’s glamour program, Western Kentucky. Tipoff is 6:00 PM Mountain Time. The game will be televised on Fox College Sports, which, of course, I don’t get. (Anyone have a stream? Argh.) [UPDATE: Never mind; it looks like the game is also on PioneerVision. Yay! I can watch!]
Denver arrives in Bowling Green riding a 4-game winning streak — but of course, all of those wins have been at home, and the Pioneers have struggled mightily on the road under Joe Scott. This is DU’s first conference road game of the season, and an opportunity to make a huge statement if they could pull out the victory.
Western Kentucky, meanwhile, is desperate for a win, for reasons that are explained here:
The Hilltoppers will be taking the home floor for the first time since an embarrassing 114-82 home loss to Louisville on Dec. 22 in front of a capacity crowd.
WKU (5-8, 0-1 Sun Belt) has also dropped three straight games, has lost seven of nine and is off to its worst start as a program since the 1999-2000 season.
Denver has beaten WKU in their last two meetings, but both of those were at Magness Arena. The Pioneers are 0-4 all time when playing the Hilltoppers on their home floor. So a win would be an enormous step forward for DU. And a loss would be an equally huge step backward for WKU, as this WKU fan message-board thread makes clear. The original poster asked, “Valid question: What if Denver beats us at home Thursday?” Among the responses:
We win this one. A loss to this Denver team at home would be…well, I don’t want to think about it.
–DEAD LAST in this great nation, #345, in 3ptFG% Def. DEAD LAST. By a lot. Teams are scorching them for a whopping 43.7% from deep. DEAD LAST.
–DEAD LAST in OppFTRate. Meaning, they send teams to the line more than ANY TEAM IN THIS FAIR COLLECTION OF UNITED STATES. DEAD LAST.
–fantastic at shooting a basketball. #20 nationally in eFG%. #16 in 3-ptFG%. They can shoot it.
–force a lot of TOs. #28 best.
If this game is in Denver, we lose. Probably big. But, it’s at home. Ready for the stat o’ the year? Denver is 4-54 in their last 58 road games. I stopped counting after that…it’s probably even uglier if you go back further. Two of those wins came at the end of the year 2 seasons ago when they were playing well. Two came last year @SD State and @New Orleans (one of the worst DI teams in the land).
Seriously, if we lose this game…and I hate hyperbole…it will be one of, if not the worst, home losses in WKU history.
And this reply:
I think we win, but Katy bar the door if we don’t. I can’t really imagine what will happen if we do. Maybe the scene from ‘Bruce Almighty’ when there is rioting in the streets.
That said, Zeke, some things pop out at me:
1) We’re not super hot at hitting the 3 ourselves. We have spurts, but nothing consistent. Better at Ark State, but not great. Will their 3 pt def matter that much?
2) If we go inside it looks like we should either get a basket or more than likely a foul and trip to the line. Not sure about the free throw shooting lately. Has it improved?
3) If they can shoot, we have issues. Ark State went off on us– and that was one guy. I don’t feel well knowing that 2-3 could do it.
4) We have limited point guard options. Are they gonna make us return to 20+ turnovers a game?
This should be a win. But will it be an EASY, BIG MARGIN win?? I’m not necessarily expecting that but many others are along with a decent team performance. Poor play and/or a close win might not be looked upon as a good thing by the masses.
Anyway, here’s a bit more from DU SID Mike Kennedy about Western Kentucky’s tradition:
Kyle Lewis and Rob Lewis are the only players who have been here before, so the rest of the team gets to experience the most historic venue in the Sun Belt Conference for the first time.
WKU is the only current Sun Belt Conference team with a Final Four banner hanging in its rafters (although the NCAA later vacated the Hilltoppers’ 1971 run through the Tournament), and it is without question the SBC team with the most success.
The Hilltoppers have been to the NCAA Tournament 21 times, including a run to the Sweet 16 in 2008 and a trip to the Second Round in 2009. The team has had 38 players named All-American, and none of WKU’s coaches has ever had a losing record.
E.A. Diddle, the namesake of WKU’s arena, coached his teams to 759 win from 1922-64. Among the coaches to follow Diddle were Gene Keady, who went on to legendary status as head coach at Purdue, and Clem Haskins, who coached Minnesota to a Final Four (and was also an All-American while playing for WKU).
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.”