Things were a little tense at halftime of Thursday’s blowout win over Johnson & Wales – sloppy play and poor execution had the Pioneers only ahead by 2 points and there was some concern that this game wouldn’t be the blowout we all expected. The game started off well, with Daniel Amigo slamming home an alley oop, but defensive miscues created a number of good looks and second chances for Johnson & Wales and the Wildcats took advantage. Particularly notable were some outright bad passes (an issue in past games as well) and one instance where Donoven Carlisle was called for a reach in foul with only one second left on the shot clock. So there was some cause for concern as we waited for the second half to begin with Denver only ahead 31-29.
But after the break, an entirely different Denver team came out of the locker room, scoring 25 straight points to take a commanding 56-29 lead with 14:21 to go. I know we’re all wondering what Coach Billups said at halftime to inspire such a drastic change, and he was happy to tell me. “I didn’t say anything. Lord as my witness, I went into the locker room with four and a half minutes left of the halftime and I said ‘Let’s go.’ They police themselves, they play for each other and with each other.”
Confident from their 25-0 run, the Pios would continue to pour in points as the second half went on, eventually topping the 90 point mark in a 91-69 victory. It was a half that allowed a lot of different players to see the court and get some comfortable playing time to show off their skills. Denver was led by what thus far has been their big three – Daniel Amigo (18 points, 8 rebounds), Joe Rosga (19 points), and Elvin Rodriguez (17 points) – but many other players contributed as well. Jake Krafka had a fine night with 9 points and 9 boards, and Christian Mackey scored 8 and grabbed 7 rebounds. Additionally, team favorite Emil Knighton scored the first points of his collegiate career. When I asked Coach Billups how exciting that moment was, he flashed a huge smile, “That was awesome! He’s one guy that when his career is over here at Denver, I’ll stand on the table for him. He owns our program and we can learn, everyone in our locker room can learn from Emil, with his attitude and his effort every single day.”
One player who struggled was Donoven Carlisle – in addition to the foul with one second on the shot clock, he was 1-3 from the field and made a couple of defensive mistakes. I asked Coach Billups where Carlisle is at health wise as he recovers from a groin injury and he said 80% at best at this point, so that does explain some of the issues. Billups made it clear that he thinks Carlisle will be able to help the team when healthy though, “He’s going to have a role of being able to come in at the 4/5 and spell guys for minutes at a time. I expect him to be a really good defender once he is healthy. So we’ll see, I haven’t seen Donoven healthy, he hurt himself in the first week on campus in the summertime, he just hasn’t been able to recover.”
I mentioned Elvin Rodriguez and his 17 points earlier – he had a great shooting night. He was very efficient, shooting 6-8 from the field, and 2-3 from three point land. He did struggle some with turnovers and fouls late, and he only had 3 assists, but he seems to be improving every game, which is a great sign for the young freshman. Coach Billups stressed that despite the improvement, Rodriguez still has a lot of room to grow in other areas of his game, “He’s going to get better, he came in so raw, now he’s starting to get coaching and starting to believe in what we’re saying. I’ve got to get him thinking pass first, shoot second. Naturally he’s a scorer, that’s what he’s always been asked to do, but I’ve got to get him thinking – ‘Hey, I need to play with our guys.’”
It was an encouraging game overall, despite the first half struggles, the team came together in the second half and proved to us and themselves exactly what they are capable of when they are firing on all cylinders. Granted, it was against a Division II team, we can’t forget that, but sometimes a boost of confidence is just what a team needs, especially heading into a hostile gym at Florida Gulf Coast next week. Coach Billups was quick not to be too overconfident though, “We shot the ball really well, our guys played with each other. It was just representative of our guys – we play together and the strength of the team is the team. So I think we’ll ride this wave for a few days but we know that we beat a team that just wasn’t as good as we were today, we’ve got to start beating the teams that are equal or better.”
That next game against Florida Gulf Coast is on Friday, November 24 at 5 PM and is part of the FGCU Shootout. The games in this event are predetermined and Denver will also play St. Francis Brooklyn on Saturday, November 25 at 2 PM, and Navy on Sunday, November 26 at 10 AM. The game against Florida Gulf Coast will be tough, the Eagles are 93-46 under head coach Joe Dooley and are coming off of back to back NCAA tournament appearances. They also beat a good Illinois State team earlier this year as well as Siena on Monday. Denver can certainly win, but they will need to be sharp in every phase of the game, especially defense, as the Eagles have a fairly potent offense and will be quick to exploit any opportunities Denver gives them. The game is set to be on ESPN3, so many of us should be able to watch on a computer/tablet or a television with a streaming device.