After Saturday’s clunker at North Dakota State, there were some concerns about which Denver (16-10, 8-5) team would show up on Tuesday night at Western Illinois (8-16, 5-8). At halftime, the answer seemed to be pretty clear. Unfortunately for the Pioneers, there was still another half to play, and what a wild half it was.
Things got off to a slow start for both teams, and at the 17:45 mark of the first half, Daniel Amigo picked up his first foul with the score tied 3-3. Denver fans collectively held their breath, as a second quick foul could spell trouble for the Pios. Instead, Amigo went on a dominating run over the next 12 minutes, by the time he got his second foul with 6:02 left in the half, he had already amassed 13 points, 8 rebounds, and 2 assists – and Denver led 35-24. Amigo would head to the bench at this point though, and with six minutes still left in the half, Western Illinois knew this was a good chance to make a run. Instead, Ade Murkey would score 10 straight points as part of a 14-3 run by Denver to close the half. That made the halftime score 49-27 and it looked like the Pioneers could coast to an easy victory.
After two quick baskets to open the second half, Denver had a 53-27 advantage and those halftime thoughts seemed to be confirmed. This is where things started to go wrong. It began, not surprisingly, with a Garret Covington three to bring the score to 53-30. During the next eight and a half minutes, the Leathernecks caught fire while the Pioneers went stone cold. The ugly result: a 28-3 Western Illinois run, with 13 of those coming from Covington. What was a 53-27 lead had suddenly become a 56-55 lead, and there was still 10:26 left in the game.
With the game starting to slip away, it was the hero of the first half, Daniel Amigo, who would right the ship. In the three and a half minute stretch after Western Illinois made it a one point game, Amigo would score 8 huge points and the Pioneers lead stretched back to 66-59 with 6:45 remaining.
The pesky Leathernecks refused to go away though, as Mike Miklusak got hot, and a Brandon Gilbeck dunk with 1:46 to go made it a one point game once again, 73-72. Following missed shots by Joe Rosga and Amigo, Miklusak was fouled and stood at the line with 27 seconds left and a chance to give Western Illinois the lead. Fortunately, he missed the front end of the one-and-one and Thomas Neff made both free throws on the other side to make it 75-72. Covington had a chance to tie it at the end but missed a wild three point attempt, and free throws by Amigo and Neff salted things away, giving Denver a hard fought 78-72 victory.
Amigo ended up with an impressive 26 points and 14 rebounds, with the Pios also getting double digit scoring performances from Murkey (12), Neff (11), and Rosga (10).
For the second game in a row we saw both the best of Denver and the worst of Denver. The stretch leading to the 53-27 lead was some of the best basketball the Pios have played all year, Amigo dominated and everyone else chipped in as necessary. On the flip side, the 28-3 run by Western Illinois was some of the ugliest basketball we have seen from Denver all year. Turnovers, fouls, and forced shots on the offensive end made things easy for the Leathernecks and they took full advantage.
At the end of the day, it was a 6 point road win over a Summit League team that has shown surprising moxie this year. You can’t complain too much about that, but it sure was a roller coaster getting there. Denver returns home to play IUPUI on Sunday at Magness Arena and they will need to be focused for the whole 40 minutes as the Jaguars will be eager to avenge their earlier home loss to the Pios.
The Summit League game to watch tomorrow night is North Dakota State at Fort Wayne. A win by the Bison all but ends any dreams Denver has of capturing a league title, while a win by Fort Wayne would keep the Mastodons nipping at Denver’s heels for 3rd place.