After losing to South Dakota State on February 8, Coach Rodney Billups made it clear that despite having lost two in a row, he felt good about the next four games and thought that Denver could win them all – they’re 3/4 of the way there after today’s 66-65 victory over Oral Roberts. It’s a game that gets Denver to 7-6 in the conference and keeps them in third place behind South Dakota State and South Dakota. It’s been an impressive streak and I asked Coach Billups how his confidence affected the run. “I hope that it’s infectious. We still practice hrd, we play hard, we try different lineups, and our guys believe in each other, which is great to see. But it’s one thing when I’m playing and another when I’m coaching. I hope my atittude and energy help them win games.”
It was a back and forth affair to begin the first half – the Golden Eagles would get the first points, but Christian Mackey responded immediately to get the Pios on the board and then followed that up with three more buckets by the 14:34 mark, giving him eight points and Denver a 12-9 lead. I asked Coach Billups how great it was to see Mackey on fire after he got the start on senior night and he was very pumped. “It was awesome to see that. If I would have known his production out of the starting lineup would be so high, I would have started him all year. But it was good for him, it was good for our team, he energized our team like he always does. I won’t be hesitant to do it again.” Denver would continue to score points, but they did have eight turnovers in the half and Oral Roberts was able to hang around. Despite a lead as large as 31-23, Denver would go into the half with a somewhat slim 4 point lead.
The second half started off nice for Denver, with Amigo getting a quick bucket to extend Denver’s lead. It would get all the way up to 42-34 with 17:17 to go, but Oral Roberts was pesky, hanging around and getting it to 43-42 at the 13:54 mark. Denver would once again claw to an eight point edge, 54-46 with 10:50 to go, but the Golden Eagles kept going, and it was tied at 56-56 with 3:27 to go. But Jake Krafka responded with a huge three at the 3:03 mark and despite Oral Roberts getting back to within one, they would never claim the lead. Krafka missed the final free throw on purpose (only one second remained on the clock), but the Golden Eagles would get the ball back with 0.7 seconds left – luckily they missed a desperation three and the Pios came away with a 66-65 victory.
This was a great way for Denver’s seniors to close things out – a big win to get to over .500 in conference and the Pios got nice performances from three of their four seniors. (shoutout to Emil Knighton – the other senior – the entire team has nothing but amazing things to say about Knighton’s character and work ethic) I mentioned Mackey, who finished with 10 points. Pemberton had a final line of 7 points, 10 assists, 3 rebounds, and Coach Billups had great things to say: “It was good, I’m assuming he wanted to make a few more shots, but 10 assists, it pretty much solidifies our assist award – which I knew going into the game – he and Joe Rosga were in a race for. I’m certainly going to miss him, our fans are going to miss him, alongside with Daniel and Christian and Emil as well.” Daniel Amigo contributed 10 points and 3 rebounds in his final game at Magness. I asked Coach Billups about his impact today. “It’s hard to explain that in one sentence. When he’s locked in – when his energy and effort and focus is in one place, he’s a very dominant person and a dominant basketball player. For us to be good, he has to be good, and when he’s not we struggle. He’s extremely important to our program and where we’re going.”
It was an all around good performance from the Pios today – though there were some negatives. They ended up with 12 turnovers, something that has been a concern all year, even in victories. They also had a pretty poor night from three point land – making only 7-22, though they held Oral Roberts to an even worse day – they were 4-19. They also had some difficulty with Javan White, Emmanuel Nzekwesi, and Albert Owens, who scored 19, 12, and 17 respectively. The Pioneers did what they had to to win though, and at this point in the season that is what is most important.
The Pios final game of the season will be in Macomb, Illinois as Denver faces off against Western Illinois at 6 PM on Saturday, February 24. On paper this should be the easiest road conference game of the year and it should be an easy victory for Denver, especially after they beat the Leathernecks 70-58 at Magness Arena earlier this season. Still, Coach Billups knows that it won’t be easy to escape with a victory. “They get a bad rap – Coach Wright does a good job, they play hard. They’ve got a roster of a couple good players and like you said, it’s senior day, they’ll be emotional. It’s a business trip for us, we have much more at stake than they do and we have to play that way.” I’m expecting to see the same Denver team we have in the last three games, and I’m hopeful for an easy win and a nice 8-6 finish to conference play.