It’s all over.
The University of Denver Pioneers (8-22) basketball team scratched, clawed, and gave everything they had to try and keep their terrible season alive, but it was just not enough, as the second-place University of Nebraska-Omaha Mavericks rode balanced, double-digit scoring from four veteran players to defeat the Pioneers, 86-76 at Magness Arena on Sunday.
The Denver loss, in front of only 1,100 fans, ended its very disappointing last place season with only eight wins (with two of those wins coming over NCAA Division II opponents) and 22 losses overall, DU’s worst season since a four-win, 25-loss campaign in 2006-2007.
The Pioneers began this season with 20-win aspirations and were picked for a third-place finish by the Summit League’s coaches, but stumbled badly to ninth-place finish in the Summit League, and was the only league team not to qualify for next week’s eight-team Summit League Tournament in Sioux Falls, S.D.
Saturday’s UNO loss was something of a microcosm of the whole season, where untimely, double-digit Pioneer turnovers combined with an unsolved defensive deficiency that could not shut down opponents’ three point shooting, spelling doom for the Pioneers.
On Senior Day, Pioneers needed to have a big day from Senior Guard Joe Rosga to have a chance at beating the Mavericks. However, the gallant Rosga from St.Paul, Minn., who ended his DU career in the top five all-time scorers over his four years in Crimson and Gold with 1,621 career points, could only manage a 3-for-12 day shooting in his final college game.
Senior Creighton transfer Ronnie Harrell, Jr. pumped-in 13 points and added five rebounds for Denver in his final game before his Denver-based family. The team’s other playing senior, Abiola Akintola, also had a nice dunk to end his four-year Pioneer career in front of his own family, visiting from Australia. DU also loses fifth-year injured 6-9 grad transfer Tory Stewart-Miller, whose foot injuries twice sidelined the potential starter transfer from the University of Colorado for most of this season, robbing the Pioneers of his inside presence.
After a back-and-forth first half where the Mavericks had a seven point lead at the break, 42-35, Omaha came out in the second half with a strong push to able to get out to an 18-point lead that showed how balanced and experienced the Mavs are as a team. The Pioneers also had a final push of their own later in the second half, which was able to narrow the Omaha lead to just five points with about 10 minutes left in the game, after a key basket from Rosga. But the Mavericks were able to regroup and stop Denver in crunch time with some smart offensive plays down the stretch to seal the victory with a 15-3 run that was just too much for Denver to handle.
JT Gibson led all scorers with 22 points for UNO, 15 of which came on his 50% success rate on his shots from beyond the three point arc. Matt Pile and Mitch Hahn chipped-in with 19 and 18 points respectively for the Mavericks, an 18-win team that may have serious tournament aspirations.
The Pioneers do have reason for some optimism for next season. David Nzekwesi, a 6-9 freshman forward from Holland by way of high school in Texas, had 15 points and 10 rebounds to lead Denver with his first career double-double today, and junior Ade Murkey finished with 11 points including a spectacular dunk. Sophomore Donovan Carlisle also contributed 10 points in the loss. Those three players will be expected to be some of the core performers for the Pioneers next season, along with the potential return of Junior Jake Krafka, who suffered a red-shirt season this year with a serious leg injury early in the season.
The poor DU season, which was caused by a mix of factors including season-ending injuries to 40% of the projected starting lineup as well as sub-par play from veteran players, will likely force the Denver administration to undertake a serious post-season examination of all aspects of its basketball program.
Let’sGoDU does not believe that third-year DU head coach Rodney Billups is in any immediate danger of losing his job, given he is in year three of his five-year deal and likely deserves a full recruiting cycle. That said, there may be other changes made to the program after such a disappointing season. A full post-mortem will follow in the coming weeks.