The 2017-2018 season didn’t start exactly as the Denver Pioneers had hoped or planned. A spunky UC Irvine team came into Magness Arena on Sunday evening and walked out with a fairly easy 83-69 victory. Most Denver fans had this game marked as a win before the season, but a combination of poor shooting and costly turnovers from the Pios proved to be too much to overcome.
Denver shot 21-63 (33.3%) from the field and 5-19 (26.3%) from three point land, numbers that will rarely win any game, but certainly not when your opponent shoots 45.2% from the field and 36.4% from three. When I asked after the game if these shooting figures should be cause for concern, Coach Billups said “We’ve had some first game jitters, we took some bad shots. It’s hard to get a good shot, get a good flow, when you have to take the ball out every time. Our defense usually drives our offense, today our offense drove our defense, and that’s why you see the result you saw.”
Despite the poor shooting, the game remained close in the first half and the Pioneers actually had a 14-13 lead with 9:42 to go before halftime. That would be the final lead for Denver though, as the Anteaters would go on a 16-2 run over the next four minutes to take a 29-16 advantage. Denver did end the half on a mini run to get to a 35-25 deficit at the break and give us a little hope that a second half comeback might be in the works.
Instead, the second half was more of the first, with each Denver run being quickly stamped out by a counter UC Irvine run. There were a few moments, mostly led by the pure tenaciousness of Joe Rosga, where Denver cut into the lead enough to start getting the crowd at Magness alive, but it was just never enough.
Denver was led with double digit scoring by Rosga, Daniel Amigo, and Elvin Rodriguez. Amigo pulled in 10 rebounds with his 13 points for a double double and Rodriguez began his college career with 11 points. In doing so, Rodriguez proved he was not afraid to shoot. In fact, he shot and missed threes the first two times he touched the ball. When I asked Coach Billups if this was part of the gameplan for Elvin, Billups gave a wry chuckle and replied “Not so much. I want him to be aggressive offensively, but within the flow of the game. I’m asking him to get the guys involved and make plays, but not so much right away soon as he gets in to shoot two threes. He’s got some learning to do, I’m going to be patient with him, he’s going to be really good for us.”
Jake Krafka also had a notable night with 10 boards to go with his 4 points and Ade Murkey scored 9 points on 3-4 shooting from the field. The stat sheet was not kind to Abiola Akintola – he had only 2 points and 4 fouls, but when I asked Coach Billups if this might be a concern, he wasn’t worried at all, “Abi just plays hard, usually his energy is rewarded. Tonight, not so much. But I don’t worry about that, Abi is our energy guy. I am asking Abi to guard their toughest guy, I’m asking him to dive on the floor and take charges, I’m okay with that, I dont think that’s going to be a problem.”
All in all, it is a somewhat concerning loss as Denver was expected to be a superior team to UC Irvine and the Pios shot incredibly poorly, so they were never really in the game in the second half. On the other hand, you can’t expect them to continue to shoot this poorly, and they have some winnable games coming up on the schedule. Unfortunately though, their next game would not seem to be one of those. The Pioneers go up to Boulder on Tuesday night for a 7 PM tip versus Colorado. The Buffaloes opened the season with a 66-51 victory over Northern Colorado and will be overwhelming favorites against Denver, but when I asked Coach Billups about his goals for the game, he was very clear that he thinks they can win, “[Our goal is] to compete. I don’t go into a game thinking a team is better than us, because I don’t believe that. I think our guys are confident enough and talented enough to win any game when we play together. The strength of our team is our team. So, we’re going to go in with our best foot forward and see what happens.”