The Denver Pioneers finally got their first statement win of the 2017-2018 season. A talented Wyoming team traveled to Denver on Wednesday night as 6.5 point favorites, but a balanced shooting effort from the Pioneers and dominant rebounding led to a 88-78 victory in which Denver was in control for the entire 40 minutes. After a frustrating start to the season, it was nice seeing the Pios click on all cylinders against a Mountain West team that has already beaten South Dakota State this season.
After allowing a Wyoming three pointer to start the game, Denver would go on a 15-0 run over the next three minutes, led by 11 points from Jake Pemberton in that stretch. When I asked Coach Billups about the start of the game, he was was elated, “”It was huge. Our whole emphasis was hitting them first. If we could start the game on fire like Jake did, and build on that energy, and play through our bigs. Daniel Amigo had another good game. Joe Rosga shot the ball really well. We get energy off the bench, like Jake Holtzmann gave us tonight, we can beat anybody on our schedule.” Wyoming would cut into the lead a few times, getting it down to 26-16 at the under 12 minutes break, but Denver kept their foot on the gas, expanding the lead back to 43-30 at the half.
The second half started off a little rocky for Denver, Jake Krafka picked up his fourth foul less than a minute into the half and Wyoming started to chip away at the large Denver lead. It mostly stayed around an 8-10 point edge, but a Hayden Dalton layup with 11:19 to go cut the lead down to 5, making it 55-50 and taking some of the air out of Magness Arena. The star of the first half, Jake Pemberton, would come to the rescue though, drilling a three and getting the lead back to 8 and the crowd back into it. Things were a little sloppy after that and the refs weren’t shy about blowing their whistles, but Denver made their free throws and ended up with an 88-78 victory that was never really in doubt.
It was a great day for Denver in many aspects of the game – they shot 56.0% from the field and 46.7% from beyond the arc – in addition to holding Wyoming to 33.8% and 27.0% respectively. Denver also had a huge rebounding advantage, 47-27. I mentioned Jake Pemberton, he finished with 19 points after an impressive 15 point game on Friday against Florida Gulf Coast. I asked Coach Billups about his development as this season has gone on and here’s what he had to say: “”He’s getting into a rhythm, which, you know, we need him to be good on both sides of the floor. Our first couple of games, even in the preseason and our scrimmages, he didn’t shoot the ball really well. 19… I don’t know if he’ll average 19, but we’ll take the 19 when we can get it.””
It was also a great day for Jake Holtzmann, who scored 20 points on 4-6 shooting and 6-6 from the line. It was an unexpected breakout performance and Coach Billups had high words of praise for Hotlzmann. “”I’m so happy for him. He went through his adversity with his surgeries and his redshirt year, he was uncertain if he wanted to continue to play. And now we get to share in the fruits of that labor, of him going to rehab every dingle day, him not feeling great for 10 months straight, just for him to shoot the ball that well, for him to have a good game like that, it makes me proud.” With so many standout performances, Joe Rosga and Daniel Amigo almost get lost in the shuffle, but they both came away with double doubles – 22 points and 10 rebounds for Amigo and 18 points and 12 boards for Rosga.
There were a couple of not as positive notes – Elvin Rodriguez played only five minutes and Ade Murkey also had a very limited role. I asked Coach Billups about this and he didn’t mince words when dscussing the issue. “”Elvin and Ade Murkey, they both have some growing up to do. These are the growing pains for them and our team, because we need those two. And Donoven Carlisle came in and gave us good minutes, but you know, for us to be really good in January and February, Elvin Rodriguez and Ade Murkey have to grow up, and if not, if they don’t want to do it my way, then guys like Jake Holtzmann are going to have more playing time.”
After a game like this though, it’s much easier to focus on the positives. Denver once again showed vast improvements in shooting and rebounding and beat a team that I don’t think a lot of us thought they would, even at home. Coach Billups is also toying with the lineups and his redistribution of minutes has certainly worked in the short term. We can’t expect Jake Holtzmann to score 20 points a game, but the fact that he made the most of his opportunity is promising. It should also be a wake up call to some players, which will hopefully help them continue in their development as the season progresses.
Up next for Denver is Air Force, on Saturday at 1 PM at Magness Arena. The Falcons have struggled this year and I anticipate that Denver will be favored, and if they can carry forward the momentum from this game, they should be able to come away with a victory. Coach Billups certainly isn’t taking anything for granted though. “We want to come out with the same kind of energy [on Saturday], same kind of fight. We don’t want to sit on our heels, and let them bring the fight to us. Air Force is a good team, they’re coached by a really good coach. We’re going to have to be ready like we were today. But we have to be Denver – we can’t be Air Force, we can’t be Wyoming, we can’t be anybody that’s on our schedule. We have to be Denver.”