Photo: Dave Eggen/Inertia Media
DU stunned the University of Nebraska Omaha Mavericks with the help of a red-hot first half en route to a first round win over Summit League 3-seed UNO. Led by the freshmen tandem of Joe Rosga (25 points) and C.J. Bobbitt (12 points) supported by seniors Marcus Byrd (14 points) and Nate Engesser (8 points), DU scorched Omaha 44-29 in the first half and held off the hard charging Mavs in the second half for the first round win.
Denver (16-14) drew first blood on a C.J. Bobbitt drive to the hoop, 2-0. The game started with a fast up and down tempo by both teams was tied 11 all at the 15:00 minute mark. Both teams started with 4 turnovers in the first 5 minutes – players on both sides clearly showed the stress of round 1 of the Summit League Tournament. A Marcus Byrd three and a Joe Rosga layup took DU up by 5, 16-11. Duke Douglas entered the game and created immediate havoc with his floor game, rebounding, and passing to stymie UNO’s athleticism. With red-hot shooting (75%), the Pioneers led, 21-16, at the 10:00 minute mark. A C.J. Bobbitt 3-point missile put DU up 23-16. Freshman C.J. Bobbitt, with growing confidence, continues to transform DU’s attack with added athleticism. A Joe Rosga 3-point bomb put DU up 26-16 as the Crimson & Gold were ‘feeling it’ with 8:29 to go – their fifth 3-point make of the half. Then, a Nate Engesser bucket and one took DU’s lead up by 8, 29-21. A Joe Rosga’s bucket, 11 points total, extended DU’s lead 31-23 with 5 minutes to go in the first half. A Byrd 3-point dagger took DU up by their largest margin to that point, 36-25, with 3:45 to go in the half. DU surged to a 40-25 advantage on Christian Mackey’s 2nd chance layup with 2:50 to go. DU tacked on 4 more points to close out the half and finished with a comfortable 44-29 lead.
DU’s winning formula in the first half included 63% shooting from the field, 50% from the arc, leading 12-9 in rebounds, and going 9-9 from the line. A nearly perfect half.
But the fireworks were just beginning.
A desperate, athletic Maverick squad came out strong in the second half and quickly cut DU’s lead to 9 points, 44-35. Continued Omaha pressure and forced turnovers closed the gap – a lightening 15-4 opening second half run that reduced DU’s lead to 48-44 – to a mere 4 points. Two big buckets by LetsGoDU MVP Marcus Byrd restored order and gave DU a 53-46 lead at 15 minutes. However, a Byrd 4th foul at 11:46 – a big foul call against Denver , came with the Pios clinging to a tenuous 53-48 lead. But the coaching staff decided to keep playing Byrd with 4 fouls much of the remainder of the second half to add veteran stability. Omaha’s pressure and athleticism produced 12 turnovers and 14 Omaha second half points to close the gap but Denver weathered the UNO surges. A Duke Douglas dunk at the 10:00 minute mark, 57-51, helped stop the bleeding. It felt like DU took the opening second half punch and steadied themselves. However, Omaha went into the bonus with 8:00 minutes to go and the gap began to narrow again. With 6:49 to go – it was a 1 point game 59-58, DU. At 6:23 an Omaha dunk gave Omaha their first lead -60-59 and a raucous crowd voiced their delight. But the Pioneers did not buckle. DU responded with two Thomas Neff free throws at the 5:00 minute mark to go back up 63-61. A Joe Rosga tip-in made it 65-61, DU at 3:30. Two Christian Mackey free throws kept the lead at 4 with 2:50 to go. Veteran Marcus Byrd canned a driving layup, 69-62, with 2:30 to go to create some breathing room. A Joe Rosga bucket held the lead at 6 with 1:45 to go. Christian Mackey was then fouled on a back-down with 1:19 and hit one of two free throws. Jake Pemberton rebound on the miss at 1:06 but the ball was stolen by back by UNO’s Holland. With 59 seconds to go, DU had the ball and a 5-point lead. Freshman Thomas Neff was fouled, went to the line, and made it 73-67, DU. After exchanging points and possessions, Thomas Neff was fouled again – with ice in his veins, he nailed both to make it 75-67 at 36.6 seconds to go. Omaha hit a free throw and got a steal and a bucket to close the score back to a five point margin, 75-70, with 28 seconds but DU responded with clutch free throws to close out the contest 78-70.
The first half showed what the Pioneers can do when they are hitting on all cylinders. The second half showed the ‘grit’ and maturity that Joe Scott talks about. There is no doubt that this team is peaking at just the right time of the year. They have a mental toughness that will make them a difficult ‘out’, they have three hungry seniors, they have a deep bench, and they have three freshmen that don’t know better.
No easy task, they will be playing the #2 seed South Dakota State Jackrabbits from Brookings, S.D. Monday night – with a fan base located an hour away from Sioux Falls. DU will no doubt take some hits Monday night – but they have better than a puncher’s chance. The unlikeliest of Pioneer basketball teams are 80 minutes from making DU basketball history.
At minimum, they are now guaranteed of earning a winning season. Quite an accomplishment for a squad who held close and believed in each other – when almost no one else did.