Denver finally got over their second half yips and put away USC Upstate 84-69 on Saturday afternoon in Magness Arena. It was a well rounded performance from the Pios and was a refreshing change from the back to back second half collapses that we have seen this month. The shooting was strong in both halves, with Denver actually shooting 63% from the field in the second half alone (compared to an amazing 72% in the first half), which was great to see from the Pioneers.
I asked Coach Billups what he attributed that to and he gave most of the credit to being well rested. “We actually got some rest from our last game to today. We took a day and a half off, and our guys got some treatment. Our team – if we get the looks we’re going to be able to make shots, that’s just the makeup of our team. But being able to get some rest totally helped us.”
The first half started much like the game against San Jose State – Joe Rosga, Jake Pemberton, and Daniel Amigo combined to score the first 16 points, and there was some concern on my part that the offense would only run through those three players once again. However, the rest of the Pioneers would get involved as the first half progressed, with Jake Holtzmann and Christian Mackey providing key contributions in the run that would create some separation between the Pios and the Spartans, with the score reaching 25-16 Denver with 9:12 to go in the half. I asked Coach Billups how he felt about getting so many players involved and he loved it, saying: “”Anytime we can share the ball, with 24 assists on 35 baskets, that’s an operation for success. Our guys are starting to understand that the strength of our team is our team and we’re coming together.”
Denver would continue their success in the first half and went into the locker room with a 41-28 lead. At this point it was fair game to wonder if Denver would come out with the same intensity in the second half, in the previous two games they did not. Denver quickly put a stop to those thoughts though, trading blows with USC Upstate to start the second half and then quickly pulling away. A Rosga three with 14:18 to go made it 57-42 and it felt over at that point. Denver’s lead was as large as 26 (76-50 with 5:26 to go) and despite a flurry of Spartans buckets at the end, Denver came away with a solid 15 point victory, 84-69.
I asked Coach Billups if he made any specific adjustments after the last two second halves and he actually tried something a little unique for him: “We practiced it, yesterday in practice we actually had a halftime in the middle of our practice. Just trying to be creative and getting our guys thinking outside the box. and being able to stay aggressive and play with each other and for each other. That showed up today and that’s going to be key for our success.”
It was a great day for Denver – Amigo had 21 points and 8 boards, Rosga chipped in 14 points and Pemberton 10. Christian Mackey scored 10 in only 7 minutes and Elvin Rodriguez grabbed 6 rebounds. Luke Neff also had a good day – scoring 5 points in 15 effective minutes and showing hustle on both ends of the court. Coach Billups had great things to say about the younger Neff: “I’m going to get him in there every chance I can, but with Luke, his substitutions and his minutes come throughout the defensive end. He’s always going to be able to make shots – if there’s somebody out there that I trust he can guard, I’m going to put him in ten out of ten times. I’m happy with his development, I’m happy with where’s he’s at. He’s got to continue to work, but he’s going to be a good player for us.”
Denver doesn’t have to wait long for their next test – on Wednesday they travel to Greeley to face the Northern Colorado Bears at 7 PM. Northern Colorado has some talent, and they always seem to have a pretty packed gym, so I’d like to see Denver carry this momentum that they’ve built up at home onto the road. The teams seem to be pretty evenly matched, so it’s going to come down to focus and doing the small things right. Here’s what Coach Billups had to say: “It’s going to be a good game. Coach Linder does a great job with his team, he’s got good players this year, it’s on his home court, so we’re going to have to be dialed in for 40 minutes and share the ball and play with and for each other in order for us to be successful.”