Photo by: Ryan Lumpkin
On a historic Sunday afternoon, the DU men’s basketball team set a new school record for NCAA Division I wins, defeating North Texas 64-52 in Magness Arena to finish the regular season at 21-8 overall and 11-5 in Sun Belt Conference play.
The Pioneers earned the No. 3 seed in this weekend’s SBC tournament with their fourth straight win, entering the crucial month of March as winners of five of the last six games.
“Finishing the regular season strong has been a big thing for us, and that was our focus over these past four weeks,” said head coach Joe Scott. “It’s been important for us to finish February, and in order to do that you have to be physical, you have to be tough and know who you are. We’ve done all of this coming off a tough road stretch where we had some heart-breakers and that’s only allowed us to get better in the month of February.”
The Pioneers will play the winner of No. 6 seed South Alabama and No. 11 seed Troy in the SBC quarterfinals in Hot Springs, Ark., on Sunday at 7:45 p.m.
DU beat both potential quarterfinal opponents during the regular season.
“We have to go about this week the same way we went about this past week, which was viewing it as a one-game season,” said Scott. “What it comes down to, no matter what we do, is we have to win game No. 30 [on our schedule].”
Denver smothered North Texas in the victory, forcing the Mean Green to commit 20 turnovers, which proved to be the difference as the Pioneers scored 27 points off turnovers.
The Pioneers improve to 21-, when they are able to hold their opponent to 65 points or fewer.
“We’ve been stressing defense and there’s no question we guarded well today,” said Scott. “They are a tough, physical team inside and we fought hard in there – every single guy fought.”
Despite a poor shooting performance in the first half, DU was able to jump out to a double-digit lead in the second half behind the offensive play of senior Brian Stafford and freshman Brett Olson, who finished with 15 and 10 points, respectively.
The Pioneers shot under 50 percent for the first time in five games, finishing 24 of 62 from the field.
In addition to Stafford and Olson, sophomore Chris Udofia and freshman Royce O’Neale were top performers for the Pioneers. Udofia finished with 15 points, six rebounds and three blocks, while O’Neale had arguably his best game of the season, recording 11 points, 11 rebounds and seven steals.
“Royce O’Neale was terrific defensively; he was very active and his line showed that at the end of the game,” said Scott. “Along with him, Brett came out and banged some big shots. Those two guys are no longer freshmen; things don’t bother them like they would a freshman. They’re veterans, they’re older now than they were back in November.”
While the Pioneer youth shined in the regular season finale, the game was significant because it marked the final home game for six DU seniors, including Stafford, forwards Rob Lewis and Justin Coughlin and guards Travis Hallam, Tyler Thalken and Alex Pickert.
This marks the first graduating class Scott recruited during his DU tenure, which he says is noteworthy as the team continues its best season in school history.
“Today was a good day for our seniors, because where we are now, I think that says everything about what our senior class has done for this program,” said Scott. “This our best team since I’ve been here and it’s because we are well-rounded. I think all the pieces to the puzzle are here right now.”
Younger players such as Olson acknowledged what the seniors have meant this season as the team continues to grow and exceed expectations.
“It felt really good to the seniors, that last home win,” said Olson. “This was a big game for us to get us rolling into March.”
Stafford, the program’s all-time leader in games played, admitted after the game he didn’t want to think too much about playing his final game in Magness Arena.
“For me to see the energy in this building and how we played today is what makes today so special for me,” said Stafford. “Where we’ve come over the past four years is something I am proud to be a part of.”
While the seniors prepare for their final games in crimson and gold, they don’t want this March to play out like previous seasons such as last year, when the team was ousted by Florida International in the first round of the SBC tournament.
Stafford believes this year’s team is a completely different team than the one that underachieved in last year’s postseason and attributes that change to the team’s commitment to defense.
“The biggest thing for us to remember going to Hot Springs is that this is a totally different team than we had last year and we’ve seen that change all season long,” said Stafford. “Defense is our main focus and our goal is to make things difficult for our opponents when they have the ball, and we’ve been doing a great job of that lately.”
The Pioneers may be without one of their best defensive players this weekend, as junior forward Chase Hallam has been sidelined due to a lingering back problem.
According to Scott, the team doesn’t know what Hallam’s status will be, considering he hasn’t practiced in over a week, but hopes to have him return to the starting lineup during the tournament.
As for the rest of the Pioneers, the team is healthy and playing their best basketball of the season heading into this weekend’s conference tournament, but more importantly, they are confident.
“We know who we are and we know what we are capable of doing this upcoming weekend,” said Scott. “At this point in the season, all it comes down to is taking it one game at a time.”