The Denver PIoneers picked up a nice 12 point win over Western Illinois at Magness Arena on Thursday night. Despite a strong start from Denver, Western Illinois would make things close and the game was as tight as a 1 point Denver lead with 6:30 to go, but the Pios would get a layup 12 seconds later to extend the lead and they never looked back from there. It was a promising return to Magness after a good road trip that was almost great and has Denver sitting at 3-4 in the Summit League, only a half game out of a third place tie.
The game opened with a starting lineup of Rosga/Murkey/Pemberton/Akintola/Amigo – a starting lineup that hasn’t been used since the game against Johnson & Wales in November. I asked Coach Billups why he went back to that lineup and here was his explanation: “With Daniel coming off the bench, he gave us some energy off of the bench. Abi doesn’t score as well as Jake Krafka, so I thought if Daniel was going to start, we needed some energy and scoring power off the bench, so we went with Krafka.” It worked well for Denver as they jetted out to a 17-7 lead and made it look like it might be a huge blowout. Western Illinois clawed their way back to a 26-24 deficit at one point though, but Denver was able to close the half out strong and take a 30-24 lead into the break.
The Leathernecks would start the second half on a 4-0 run to get the deficit back to 2, but once again Denver would respond, this time with an Ade Murkey jumper. The teams mostly went back and forth after this until Kobe Webster decided to go off. He had been held scoreless in the first half, but from the 12:32 mark of the second half to the 9:05 mark he had 13 points, single-handedly willing Western Illinois to their first lead of the game. Denver stayed strong though, depending on Rosga, Pemberton, Murkey, and Amigo to lead the way as Denver ended the game on a 20-9 run to come away with a 70-58 victory.
It was a good all around day for Denver – they got double digit scoring from the aforementioned Rosga, Pemberton, Murkey, and Amigo and despite eight first half turnovers, they only had four in the second half. Jake Krafka also had five points and five rebounds while Jake Holtzmann provided a couple key threes. Coach Billups was eager to praise the bench play that the Pios got tonight, saying “When you score 23 points off your bench, you give yourself a really good chance to win. Whether it’s Holtz or Thomas Neff or Luke Neff or Elvin Rodriguez, if we can get that kind of production from our bench, it doesn’t really matter who it is, it helps our team win.”
It wasn’t a perfect game of course. Despite holding Kobe Webster to zero first half points, he had that 13 point barrage in the second half and would end up with 22 points. It was quite a performance by him and very frustrating to watch for Denver fans. Coach Billups was also not pleased with the second half performance that lead to that. “It’s very frustrating. He’s a freshman, he’s a good player, he can score the ball at all three levels. But our guys relaxed and we have to get out of that. And that will come as these games keep coming at us every Thursday and Saturday, our pride and our toughness will increase, to not let a kid come in and score 22 points in one half.” Daniel Amigo also struggled some, despite his 12 points he was only 4-11 from the field and made a few bad decisions. I asked Coach Billups how that affected the gameplan as the game went on and he said: “Daniel is going to be Daniel. You know, Daniel settled for some quick jump shots, which is not good for our team. I coach defense very hard and I try to put our guys into position to be effective offensively, and you know, I can’t score it for him. We try to throw it to him around the basket and that is where he’s good at- and if he can’t get it in the hole, we’ve got to do something different.”
This was definitely another nice step forward after a four game road trip that showed a lot of promise. Up next for Denver is South Dakota, that game will be on Saturday, January 27 at Magness Arena at 4 PM. South Dakota just destroyed South Dakota State and they are sitting atop the Summit League standings with a lot of confidence. Despite that, I think Denver can keep things close and maybe even pull out an upset if they can keep playing the way they have shown they can. Coach Billups agreed that the game is certainly winnable, though that wasn’t his only focus. “They are the top team in the conference and they have the coach of the year last year, Craig Smith. They’ll be ready for us, they just got a huge win at home last night. I’m confident we can compete and win the game if we play the right way. That’s the only thing I’m concerned with – playing the right way and playing with and for each other – outrebounding and not taking messed up or bad shots and taking care of the ball. If we do that we give ourselves a chance to win at the end of the game.” We’ll see what happens on Saturday but with a little luck I think Denver may just find themselves in it at the end of the game.