#8 Seed Denver falls in final seconds to top-seed North Dakota State, 71-69 to end season in Summit League Tourney

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DU Senior Ade Murkey (# 0), drives in his final college game against NDSU in Sioux Falls. Murkey finished with 17 points for DU. Photo: Associated Press

It was epic, heart-wrenching and at the same time, prideful.

The eighth and final-seeded Denver Pioneers Men’s Basketball Team, playing with just one upperclassman in the lineup for most of the season, saved their very best team effort for their last game, as the Pioneers took top-seed North Dakota State into the final seconds before dropping a thrilling 71-69 heartbreaker in the opening round of the Summit League Tournament at the Sanford Premier Center in Sioux Falls, S.D.

Denver sophomore and top shooter Jase Townsend, who had tied the game up at 69-69 with 25 seconds remaining, had a chance to win or tie the game again in the final six seconds with the score 71-69, NDSU.  However, instead of shooting a three-point attempt for the win, he elected (or perhaps was instructed) to drive to the basket instead for a two-point shot to tie, drawing contact from the Bison, but not a foul call, as his layup attempt fell just wide at the buzzer, ending the game (and DU’s season) at a record of 7-24.  

North Dakota State, 23-8 and 11.5-point favorites against DU, escaped to the tournament semi-finals on Monday Night. NDSU Senior Vinnie Shahid, who is DU Senior Ade Murkey’s former AAU teammate and close friend from Minneapolis, led the Bison with 22 points, including a huge three pointer and a pair of foul shots in the final minute to seal the win for the Bison. 

The Pioneers, who shot 50% from the field in the game, outscored the Bison 39-35 in the second half. DU, who had won two of their last three games just to get to the last Summit League Tourney slot in Sioux Falls and escape last place, played their total hearts out. DU’S three best players, Ade Murkey, Jase Townsend and Robert Jones led the Pioneers with excellent performances with their season on the line. 

Murkey, a senior and the heart-and-soul of the Pioneers finished with 17 points, 13 rebounds and 4 assists in his final game in Crimson and Gold, before fouling out in tears in the final seconds. North Dakota State coach Dave Richman called Murkey a “warrior” after the game on television, and complimented the Pioneers profusely on the near-upset. 

Townsend, who put the Pios on his back down the stretch, scored 16 of his 20 points in the second half.

Jones, the 6-10 freshman  big man, had a career-high 21 points to lead Denver in scoring on the night, with all of the points coming in the paint.

The Pioneers used solid shooting and strong defense to hold NDSU to just 39% shooting.

Indeed, the Pioneers, without their band or cheerleaders in Sioux Falls, were ‘adopted’ and cheered on by thousands of South Dakota State fans, who had arrived early for their tournament game following Denver and NDSU.

The teams traded baskets early, but it looked like NDSU might pull away after a Jaxon Knotek dunk midway through the first half. Knotek’s slam fired up the Bison crowd and gave NDSU an 18-12 lead. It didn’t last though, as the Pioneers scored the next four points.

It then looked like the Pioneers might make a run when DU freshman Robert Jones and-1 dunk at 7:13 mark tied the game at 20, but he missed the free throw and NDSU scored the next five points. Denver did get back to within one, but the Bison scored the final five points of the half to take a 36-30 lead into the locker room.

Vinnie Shahid buried a second-chance three-pointer four minutes into the second half to put the Bison up 44-36, their largest lead of the game to that point. After a stop at the other end, the all-league first-teamer hit a layup to push the lead to 46-36, which drew a timeout from the Denver bench.

NDSU was threatening to pull away again, but Denver’s Jase Townsend went on a 7-0 run midway through the frame to tie the game at 49-all, part of a 16-3 stretch by Denver that ended with the Pioneers up 58-52 with 8:33 on the clock.

The Pioneers held onto that lead until a Shahid triple put the Bison up 67-65 with 1:22 on the clock. Denver tied the game twice after that, but could never regain the lead. Shahid got fouled on a drive with six seconds left and hit both foul shots to secure the win.

Shahid led all players in the game and three Bison in double figures with 22 points. Tyson Ward added 20 points and Sam Griesel collected 10 points to go along with a career-high 13 rebounds.

Thus an otherwise horrible 7-24 DU season is over, but anyone watching the game had to admire the performance DU put in against a veteran Bison team. DU should return a nucleus of more experienced players next season, as only Murkey graduates.

7 thoughts on “#8 Seed Denver falls in final seconds to top-seed North Dakota State, 71-69 to end season in Summit League Tourney”

  1. What a game and what an effort. Next year’s captains Jones and Townsend may be the best 1-2 punch in the Summit next season. Add the third co-captain, Tarly Gaitlin, should be healthy. They have some solid pieces. I’m left to wonder what ‘would have been’ if David Nzequesi, Joe Lanzi and a few others had progressed this season. Depth really hurt DU in the end. With only one new incoming freshman next season, I hope this group spends a lot of time on campus this summer. DU should not reside in the bottom half of the Summit League.

  2. Thank god it’s over

    Let’s speak of basketball no further, all other sports are more deserving of attention

  3. There are no moral victories when you’re 7-24, but I’m glad the Pios went out with a fight. It was a dismal season, but this group did play hard and I think Billups got what he could out of this team. While this team just didn’t have the talent and polish to win nearly enough, they scrapped and clawed. Far cry from last year’s group, a group that had zero chemistry, didn’t compete consistently, and looked disjointed and apathetic.

    The million dollar question is where does the program go from here? It’s all about recruiting, and what does that look like moving forward? If there isn’t immediate help coming, next season will be more of the same. It’ll be a long summer.

  4. Exciting game to watch and a heartbreaker for the team and fans. They played as if they had nothing to lose (true) and left it all on the court. Now the game begins of the decision of the coach. I feel Billups should go. The rally at the end of the season just isn’t enough. Big picture here- they have 1 recruit signed for next season. Who knows what will happen in the off season with transfers. If I’m athlete looking to play DI BB, I’d be concerned of my own future there. The season is in the books and its time to re-group. DU Athletic leadership has a decision to make; I think its an easy one.

  5. A loss is a loss. This shouldn’t save Billups’ job. Where was this “fight” all season. Other comments say there’s only one incoming freshman so it’s not like newcomers will improve the team next season. Why only one recruit? Who’s fault is that? The coach’s poor recruiting plan.


    Definitely a spirited effort by the Pios at the Summit Tourney in their loss to N.D. State last night.  Hat tip to the players’ solid battle.

    But again, same result – another DU loss leaving the team at a record setting 7-24 on the year.    (In DU’s 73 year history of playing basketball dating back to 1947-48, DU’s loss count at 24 this year was the second most losses ever for the school in a single season.  Last years 22 losses in the season was similarly historically bad).

    Now that the Season From Hell Part # 2 is over, it’s time for DU top leaders to face reality and pull the plug on the four year failed experiment otherwise known as “The Rodney Billups Clown Show.”   Billups has run DU’s basketball program head first into the ground in his four years as its top coach.  It’s time to move on.  Any self-respecting Division One University could see a change needs made in its leader but I’m sure DU Officials will continue to bumble forward with the same lame excuses as to why they are keeping a perennial loser.   (He played at DU, he’s a young guy still learning, his name is Billups, he’s from Denver etc)

    As a result, the men’s program will only continue to fall deeper into the abyss unless DU makes the needed decision ASAP to fire its under-qualified “head pretender” (aka head coach). Yes Chancellor Jeremy Haefner and Athletic Director Karlton Creech, I’m talking to you and calling you out.  Please relieve Billups of his duties effective immediately and insert a competent, capable leader.   Billups has already wasted DU’s precious athletic funds on poor recruits, incompetent assistant coaches and embarrassing results.   By allowing Billups to continue on as the head coach in light of his record-setting failures (see below), DU officials might as well be slapping the faces of all of the other high-performing athletes and coaches in its other otherwise successful sports program (hockey, lax, soccer, volleyball, gymnastics, golf etc).  Hold Billups accountable as you would any other coach in your beloved sports program.   After all, DU’s proudly boasts each year that it has won yet again the “Learfield Sports D-1 AAA Directors’s Cup” based on its athletic teams top finishes across the board.  Why does DU’s athletic department have a separate expectation and standard such that it allows a highly visible sport like its D-1 basketball team to fail horrendously with no accountability to the head coach ?  Why the double standard ?  It’s offensive to the other sports programs at DU.  DU Officials need to leave their ivory tower campus and air-conditioned offices of take a stroll in Colorado’s basketball community — a quick poll would reveal that DU’s program is viewed as a joke, and the laughing only gets louder so long as Billups remains as the coach.

    What is abundantly clear is that Billups’ first two years of mediocrity were based on the fact that he was running on the fumes of former Coach Scott’s successful program and solid talent selection.  It’s undisputed that Billups managed to bat .500 in his first two seasons based on the fact that he still had Scott’s tough-nosed recruits and skilled players, along with a special big man named Daniel Amigo.  

    Over the past two years however — after Billups ran off Scott’s remaining players and replaced them with 5th year graduate transfers and junior college transfers — Billups’ lack of coaching ability has been on full display.   These past 2 years Billups has had complete ownership and control of the program.  Based on the teams horrendous record these past 2 years, it’s painfully obvious now that he lacks coaching ability,  is a poor recruiter, fails to discipline his team, and lacks leadership.

    Look at the facts from this just finished season.  They don’t lie:

    This years team finished with an RPI ranking of 336 out of 351 teams.  Put bluntly, only 15 teams sucked worse than DU.  Such teams included Houston Baptist, Western Illinois, Incarnate World and Arkansas Pine-Bluff to name a few. Wow, DU is swimming with champions.

    DU’s team was ranked 318th in scoring defense this year almost identical to last years teams’ dismal performance. In other words, he’s a horrible defensive coach.  His teams have never had any sustainable, consistent solid defense or recognizable identity as a defensive team.  The bottom line, Billups is a miserable defensive coach.   DU also ranked 306 in assists per game and 311th in assist to turnover ratio.  In other words, Billups offensive schemes are ineffective as his team does not share the ball efficiently; his team is undisciplined because they frequently turn it over; and they don’t get many assists because his offensive sets don’t work and/or his players are selfish.  This year DU finished 323rd in three pointers made and the team ranked 230th in free throw percentage. 

    In simple terms, Billups has not recruited good shooters and skilled players.  At least you knew Coach Scott’s players could nail threes and knock down free throws – not Billups’ guys — bricklaying is their hallmark (Townsend excepted).  Let’s not even start with his substitution pattern if you could call it that.  Trying to understand Billups’ substitution pattern is like trying to predict what numbers pop up on the ping-pong balls during the Colorado lottery – totally random and irrational.  

    I could go on but these simple statistics provide the proof … Billups is a poor coach and a poor evaluator of talent.

    Billups can’t blame his players as they are his handpicked chosen ones.  During these past two failed seasons, Billups has had “his guys” “his recruits” “his type of players” for “his program”,  “guys who play above the rim” and “his style of play … fast and athletic”.  All descriptions used by Billups when discussing his players these past 2 years.  Despite playing with his “own guys,” his teams have produced only 7 wins each season finishing 8th and 9th in the Summit League.  Billups himself got rid of some of his prized recruits from his first recruiting class which he personally selected (Elijah Blake, Donovan Carlisle, and Elvin Rodriquez).  How can he blame anyone else for these poor picks ?  Billups himself gave them their scholarships originally.  DU’s team did not have to be young and inexperienced this year.  The lack of a solid junior class can be directly blamed on the head coach’s  recruitment of these players in the first instance, and then his later decision to get rid of these players when he was unhappy with the team’s result.   (Nice touch, blame your own players). DU’s lack of a strong upperclassman class was the direct result of Billups’ poor draft picks.   In simple terms— Billups solely owns the teams’ recruiting blunders plain and simple.  

    He can’t blame the assistant coaches — after all they were selected by him.  In fact, if you look at Billups top two assistants over the past 4 years, they are all career losers to a coach.  That is, if you looked at each of the coach’s records in their various college programs during their respective careers, they each have individually lost more games with their college programs than they have won.  Yet, Billups chose to hire each of these assistants to guide and advise him.   After last season,  Billups even blamed two of his top assistants, Snell and Patton for his teams’ failure as he got rid of them claiming to DU’s Athletic Department that these coaches had a “negative vibe” and were a “poor fit” for his program.  Yet, he was the one who hired them !  DU’s Athletic Director — yes that’s you Karlton – was fully supportive of Billup’s firing of Snell. 

    Billups can’t blame the fans – they left the stands only after he put an inferior product on the court.  And then mid-season this year, Billups chose to hide his losing product in the practice gym explaining to the public that “it was the players’ choice as they voted on it.”   Put it on the players, nice leadership.  Of course the truth is that nobody wanted to watch his team play his ugly brand of basketball this year as it raced to the bottom of the RPI rankings.  The average attendance this year for home games was 990 (less than gymnastics drew) and the low fan support was a substantial revenue drain for the school, again. This is hardly what Billups and DU promised its fan base 4 years ago when they hired him claiming he would fill the stands, bring energy and offer an exciting fan experience.

    Billups can‘t blame the refs — although he did try this year after a couple of losses when he publicly complained about his team not getting the calls and that his team lost the game due to poor officiating. Excuses, excuses….  

    He can’t blame the athletic administration – they gave him this bonus year after they should have fired him last year based on his dismal performance.  This year was his last chance to prove himself and show that the 2018-19 season was a fluke.  Well it wasn’t.  DU officials (and alumni) were simply fed more of the same this year.  DU has continued to pay Billups’ lofty salary (third highest paid person currently on payroll at DU by one account) and stand behind their man.  Even after the Athletic Department caved into Billups demands to give scholarships to JUCO transfers (atypical for DU and not allowed with the other sports teams) they were rewarded with lackluster results and all-time low attendance records.  This performance would never cut it in the private sector but hey, apparently DU has money to burn and good-will to squander.  DU appears fully content in tolerating losing seasons and deficient performance from its men’s head coach.

    Enough said.  The decision that should be made and needs to be made is obvious.  DU needs to hire a new coach before the signing season for spring recruits begins and before quality replacement coaching prospects are taken by other schools.   Of course firing Billups and hiring a new leader is the logical personnel move that needs to be made at this time if DU wants to save its program. Unfortunately, it’s predictable that DU will unwisely continue to “shine on” its supporters and proclaim that their King is in fact wearing clothes. However, all of us in the stands and in the Colorado basketball community who have been exposed to DUs program during Billups’ reign know better.


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