Denver had a chance late, which is about all you can ask for against a team as tough as South Dakota State, but the Pios just weren’t able to pull this one off. A horrid start to the game and a lack of focus at stretches were too much for Denver to overcome, and despite holding Mike Daum to 4-16 from the field, they couldn’t come away with the win. It was frustrating to see the opportunity slip away, but the fight that Denver showed was admirable and South Dakota State is the best team in the league, so this was always going to be a tough one to win.
It was another poor start to a game by Denver – Daum led things off with a layup and by the time he made a three before the first TV timeout, it was 20-9 SDSU and the Pioneers were already in a world of trouble. They would try to hang with the Jackrabbits, but it just wasn’t happening in the first half. Jake Krafka and Jake Pemberton both had 9 points at the break, but South Dakota State had done far more damage, taking a 45-31 lead into the locker room after a couple of late free throws by Joe Rosga got Denver the last points of the half. At this point Daum already had 11 and freshman David Jenkins Jr. had poured in 16. Denver was in bad shape at this point, but the second half would have some surprises.
The half started off poorly again, with Daum and Reed Tellinghuisen knocking down shots to give SDSU a 50-31 lead. Denver would chip away and fight back though, riding an energetic spurt from Christian Mackey to get the deficit back to a more manageable 15 points, and then a series of buckets and free throws, mostly from Ade Murkey, to get things down to single digits. It was a drastic change and I asked Coach Billups what changes prompted the run. “We just played zone in the second half, made them take contested threes. I’m not sure how many shots they took at the basket in the second half, but that was the only changeup. Try to make them make a decision out by the NBA line versus driving our defenders.” It certainly worked – at the 4:26 mark Mike Daum fouled out and all of a sudden Denver’s 11 point deficit didn’t look quite as bad. A bucket by the Jackrabbits with 1:43 left gave them a 9 point lead, but then Denver went on a 12-7 run to get the score to 80-76 with 14 seconds left and suddenly there was a glimmer of hope. This was furthered when Jenkins Jr. went 1-2 from the line and Denver grabbed the ball down 5 with 11 seconds left. Unfortunately though, they were not able to get a shot off until there only 4 seconds left, and it was a missed Rosga three, crippling Denver’s chance of a miracle. Ade Murkey did have a chance to make it a one possession game with two seconds left, but missed one of his two free throws, making the final score 81-77, a frustratingly close defeat for Denver.
There were a lot of good things to say about Denver today – their second half comeback wasn’t quite enough, but it was great to see that level of play from them. Jake Krafka also had a great night, scoring 14 points and grabbing 8 rebounds. Coach Billups was happy to see it from Krafka. “It was good for him and his confidence, it was the first time I started him in weeks, he needed to get some momentum going. I’m happy for him, I’m happy for our team, it gives us some confidence to be able to play him, hopefully he can make some shots going forward.” Christian Mackey was another player that brought a great energy to the game and helped Denver in their second half run. I asked Coach Billups if he might try to get him some more playing time and he said “I’m trying to fit him in there. You mentioned Daum, he was in when Christian was in – it’s hard to find a matchup for Christian when they have a dynamic player like Mike Daum in the game. So I’m going to continue to work him in there, continue to have some fun with him, hopefully he can continue to bring that energy – he had a really good game today for the short amount of time he got to play.”
There were some negatives to highlight though – the Pios turned the ball over 14 times, compared to only 5 for SDSU. They also allowed Jenkins Jr. to go off for 31 points – and it’s a somewhat terrifying thought to think that he’s only a freshman. Mike Daum was “limited” to 13 points and 13 rebounds, though his effect on the game was clear, as Coach Billups noted. “He averages 27 and 13, he’s the best player in our league – he affects the game in every way. He poses a different matchup, he posts smaller guys, he drives big guys, he shots from NBA range from the three. He’s a really really good basketball player for our league.” Overall the Pios just didn’t quite get the job done on defense and it shows in the stat line.
The next game is a pretty big one for Denver. The Summit League is very top heavy this year, with South Dakota and South Dakota State already guaranteed the top two seeds. After that it is a free for all. Fort Wayne is currently in 3rd with a 5-5 record, but right behind them is Denver, NDSU, and Oral Roberts, all only a game back at 4-6 (and Omaha sits 1 1/2 back at 3-6). So this game against the Bison could be the difference between a 3 seed and a 7 seed. I asked Coach Billups about the seeding implications of this game and he wasn’t too concerned, while also bringing up a good point about a quirk of the Summit League tournament (the 1 and 2 seeds play a day before the 3 and 4 seeds in the first round): “I’m not really worried about the seeding right now. Four winnable games that we have in front of us, the cards will fall where they may. If you’re not 1st or 2nd or 7th or 8th, you’ve still got to win three games in three days, so I just want to continue to get better, play after play, half after half, game after game, and practice after practice.” It’s a fair point, but it would be nice to snag that #3 seed, even if you still do have to win three in three days in Sioux Falls. A win against North Dakota State would be a great step in that direction and if Denver can continue to show progress and not shoot themselves in the foot at the start of games, I think they’ve got a great chance.