This season, the University of Denver Pioneers (16-14) are 0-2 against the South Dakota State University Jackrabbits (24-7). But tonight’s semifinal game is not the mismatch it appears to be on paper.
DU started their conference season in Brookings, South Dakota on January 1st, dropping a 68-59 decision. South Dakota State killed DU on the offensive boards 12-2 and led for 32 minutes 26 seconds, using big scoring runs to pull away. Denver was led by Marcus Byrd (16 points), Joe Rosga (12 points), and Nate Engesser (11 points). SDSU had balanced scoring with 5 players in double digits. SDSU had 11 turnovers to 19 for the Pioneers. Denver trailed in rebounds 22-29 (-7).
A month later, SDSU rolled into Denver on January 30th and won 67-56. The game was closer than the final score indicated and DU had a great home court crowd. Denver led 47-46 with just under nine minutes left but a pair of foul shots marked the final tie and lead change to put SDSU up 48-47 and sparked a 9-0 SDSU run that ended with the Jacks up 55-47 with 4:33 left, capped by a Jake Bittle 3-pointer. Three Jackrabbits finished in double figures.
Mike Daum led a trio of Jackrabbits in double figures with 15 points and added 7 rebounds. Marshall added 13 points and 6 rebounds, while senior Jake Bittle pitched in with 12 points and a game-high 8 rebounds, as the Jacks finished a devastating plus-14 on the glass, 36-22. G/F Reed Tellinghuisen finished with nine points, with a trio of triples in the win. Joe Rosga and C.J. Bobbitt scored 12 points to lead the Pioneers, with Marcus Byrd adding 11 points in the loss. DU won the turnover battle 12-8.
The Jacks are a well-coached team that plays fundamental basketball. They exert constant pressure on offense and defense and before you know it, they have the lead and the game in hand. They also have a tendency to go on runs so DU is going to have to rely on stingy defense, limited turnovers, and be sure to reduce the rebound margin in order to limit Jackrabbit possessions.
“I think in terms of what our programs emphasize, they almost couldn’t be more opposite, but they really believe in what they believe in, and we really believe what we believe in, and it almost eats a hole in my stomach every time we play them,” head coach Scott Nagy said. “Just about everything we’ve taught our guys defensively, we have to undo in a two or three day period, and it’s almost the opposite and it’s very frustrating and hard for the players. They’re just very difficult for us to guard.”
In the two matchups, South Dakota State held a +21 rebound advantage, so this is an area DU must address to keep the game close. The Jacks will be starting three seniors against DU’s three freshmen. South Dakota State will have the full support of a local crowd, too. If you look for a Pioneer edge, DU’s deep bench should give the Pioneers a slight advantage. Also, DU’s freshman trio of Joe Rosga, C.J. Bobbitt, Thomas Neff are no longer playing like freshmen.
DU must stop South Dakota State runs with stingy defense and hold their own on the boards for an upset bid. A rapidly improving Denver squad has closed the gap – but is their progress enough to tilt the balance?