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.