Most of my memories of the Denver Pioneers' 2010-11 season involve, as you'd expect, me at Magness Arena, watching basketball games. But one that has strangely stuck with me is the memory of sitting in my car in the Target parking lot at Northfield Stapleton on December 8, 2010, listening to the radio broadcast of Denver's worst loss of the season. The Pioneers, in the midst of a profound early-season swoon, were in Moraga, California, playing an excellent St. Mary's team. For a squad that often struggles on the road under the best of circumstances, it was a perfect storm.
I was shopping for Christmas decorations that night, but I must have sat in my car for a good 20 or 30 minutes before going into the store, and another 15 or 20 minutes afterward, listening to large chunks of the game on 1510 AM as the "Voice of the Pioneers," Mitch Hyder, narrated the carnage: 11-2 Gaels, then 23-9, then 38-14, then 48-22, then 60-28. Even now, whenever I go to that Target, I'm always reminded, for whatever reason, of sitting in my car in that parking lot on that night, listening to the DU-St. Mary's game. I guess the beating Denver took was PTSD-inducing, even 1,000 miles away. The final score was 77-47. On my Pioneer Pulse blog, I dubbed it the "Moraga Massacre."
A little less than a year later, on November 23, 2011, it was the Gaels' turn to visit Denver. Because the game was at Magness, and because Denver has looked quite good so far this year, there was certainly reason to expect a different sort of game. Certainly, no one was expecting another 30-point blowout. Ken Pomeroy's tempo-free robots gave Denver a 24% chance of winning, and predicted a 63-57 margin for the Gaels. Las Vegas installed St. Mary's as a 7-point favorite.
Still, it was hard, at least for me, to imagine Denver actually winning. Sure, my liveblog post referenced #gaeltears -- the anti-SMC hashtag invented, I believe, by Gonzaga blogger/tweeter La Rev -- but that was bravado. I mean, this isn't just some quasi-decent Sun Belt team, like the North Texas and Florida Atlantic squads that Denver dispatched at home with surprising ease last season. St. Mary's a mid-major powerhouse, a program that's nationally recognized as being really good. They lost Mickey McConnell, but not much else, from last year's team, which was an utterly inexplicable loss to San Diego away from ending Gonzaga's WCC hegemony and earning an NCAA at-large berth (and which, of course, destroyed the Pios that night in Moraga).
Hopefully, I thought, Denver would at least make it competitive this time -- and hey, if they can keep it close down the stretch, you never know.
As it turned out, Denver didn't need to keep it close down the stretch, because they outplayed St. Mary's virtually from start to finish. The Gaels jumped out to a 4-0 and then 9-4 lead, but when Denver hit its second of three consecutive #superhoops -- more on that in a moment -- to go ahead 10-9 with 13:19 left in the first half, they would never look back. That's right: for the final 33 minutes and 19 seconds of the game, the University of Denver Pioneers never relinquished their lead over the Saint Mary's College Gaels.
Now there's a sentence I never could have imagined writing while sitting in that Target parking lot last December.
The string of back-to-back-to-back #superhoops that spurred Denver's takeover of the game was one of the evening's most memorable moments. At the 14:21 mark of the half, Gaels star Matthew Dellavedova had scored the game's first #superhoop (with an assist to his mouthguard, I believe) to give St. Mary's a 9-4 lead. The Pioneers needed to answer -- and boy did they ever.
When Chase Hallam swished home a three-pointer at the 13:59 mark, 21 seconds after Dellavedova's, the crowd went wild. Well, technically the crowd went wild a few seconds after Hallam's shot, when the announcer declared that it was "TIME FOR TEES FOR THREES!!!!!!!"
The crowd, you see, was heavily populated with little kids, this being a Rising Stars night. And if there's one thing kids love more than free t-shirts, it's screaming about free t-shirts. So the whole place got really loud -- the loudest it had been all night, by far -- when TEES FOR THREES started. The noise actually may have played a role in causing Dellavedova to turn the ball over, with Hallam recording the steal. Five seconds later, the ball landed in Royce O'Neale's hands and -- swish! -- another Denver #superhoop, and more TEES FOR THREES!
The crowd noise built on itself. SMC's Stephen Holt missed a 3 on the other end, Denver got the ball back, Chase Hallam connected from #superhoop land again, and the crowd went wild for the DU rally -- and for another TEES FOR THREES chance! Barely a minute after trailing 9-4, Denver was suddenly up 13-9.
Here's how I tweeted it inrealtime: "Chase Hallam answers with a #superhoop! AND IT'S NOW TIME FOR TEES FOR THREES"
"Wow, crowd is LOUD for tees for threes. May have disrupted SMC offense! A steal! And then another DU #superhoop! DU lead! TEES FOR THREES!"
"THREE STRAIGHT #SUPERHOOPS FOR DENVER & the crowd is going wild! Mostly for the t-shirts! But also perhaps for the basketball! 13-9 Denver!"
(The above photo was taken a bit later, when a St. Mary's player was shooting free throws. I'm just using it to illustrate my point about the presence of many children at the game.) Denver's #superhoop magic wasn't done. Chris Udofia would hit one at 8:52, to stretch the lead to 20-13. Then, after Udofia was called for his second foul, Justin Coughlin subbed in for him at the 6:08 mark, and went completely nuts. Coughlin, a reserve big man who had done little offensively in Denver's first three games, hit #superhoops at 4:44, 3:06 and 0:34, the last one giving Denver its halftime margin of 35-29. Coughlin improbably led the team at halftime with 10 points.
"The coaches always harp on me: when you're open, shoot the ball. I can't complain about that. Who doesn't want to have their coach tell them they can shoot the 3?" Coughlin mused after the game.
Of his first #superhoop, he said, "I just let it fly and it felt good, and from there it's kind of easy to built a little momentum."
At halftime, perhaps the night's most trilling action took place as kids from St. Vincent's Elementary School split up into two teams for a timed free-throw shooting contest, one team shooting into one basket, the other team into the other basket. Whichever team scored the most hoops in the allotted minute (or whatever the time period was) would be the winner.
Things started slow, but as the clock wound down, the kids on both teams suddenly got hot, and started matching each other clutch shot for clutch shot. It was remarkable. Both teams had baskets just as time expired (accompanied by wild celebrations), resulting in a tie score of 6-6, and an impromptu 15-second "overtime." The same thing happened at the end of the OT, with both teams getting buzzer-beaters to tie the score at 9. At this point, the PA announcer just declared that everybody had won, which was a little Bud Selig-y for my tastes, but they are elementary schools kids after all. And dammit, they earned that tie.
When play resumed, you had to wonder if Denver would be able to keep it up. They'd shot 8-for-12 from #superhoop land in the first half, which cries out for a law-of-averages correction. And St. Mary's had looked sloppy at times, committing 8 turnovers to Denver's 3 -- something they might well be able to correct. You had to think the Gaels had a run in them, and I confess that still didn't entirely BELIEVE! THAT! WE! WOULD! WIN! But Denver set the tone by quickly expanding their lead from 6 to 10 out of halftime, forcing Randy Bennett to take a quick timeout, trailing 39-29. From there, the second half became a story of Denver weathering mini-storm after mini-storm. Again and again, St. Mary's would seem to be on the verge of a comeback. Dellavedova would look like he was getting in a rhythm...only to have the ball stolen by the Pioneers. St. Mary's would take a good-looking shot to close the gap...only to have it rim out.
The Pioneers, meanwhile, turned to their inside game to maintain and build their lead. They hung with St. Mary's on the boards (losing just 14 to 13 on defensive rebounds and 3 to 2 on offensive rebounds), and went just 2-for-8 from three in the second half, but 8-for-17 from two and 13-for-15 from the free throw line. Maybe the best example of this was the old-fashioned three-point play by Rob Lewis at the 14:51 mark. "That is some serious blue-collar work by Rob Lewis!" Mitch Hyder exclaimed as the redshirt senior went toe-to-toe with the Gaels' big men and earned the "and one" to give Denver a 46-34 lead.
(I had the radio feed streaming on my laptop throughout the game, and I would occasionally put in my earbuds and follow along. But that's always a bit confusing, as the stream is 5 to 7 seconds behind real time. As I tweeted, you can view this one of two ways: either you're listening to a delayed radio feed from the past, or you are sitting there watching a basketball game that's in the future.)
A while later, St. Mary's captured some momentum with its own "and-one," causing its bench to erupt...
...as the three-point play cut the lead to 54-48. The Gaels seemed poised to make a run as an empty Denver possession led to a breakaway layup chance for Dellavedova on the other end. But Dellavedova missed, Royce O'Neale grabbed the rebound for the Pioneers, and Chris Udofia slammed home a dunk to put Denver up 56-48 at the under-8 media timeout. Another storm weathered, and a huge swing.
Perhaps the biggest play of the game happened with 3 1/2 minutes left and Denver up 58-52. Again, the Gaels seemed poised for a run after cutting the lead to 6 -- but they were running out of time, and desperately needed a defensive stop. The ball found its way into the hands of freshman Brett Olson, Colorado's high school Player of the Year his senior year, and DU's star recruit. Olson is a sharpshooter, but had struggled offensively in his first three-plus college games, going 2-for-10 from the field, including 0-for-7. That changed at the 3:29 mark against St. Mary's, as he drained a #superhoop to give Denver a 64-54 lead.
"That was a huge shot," head coach Joe Scott said after the game. "I know he needed to get the monkey off his back. That kid's a terrific shooter, he's a big-time shooter -- everybody's gonna find that out -- and he had some guts there to catch that thing and bang it in. It was a huge shot."
"It felt really good," said Olson of his big moment. "I hadn't been shooting very well lately, so it's good to get that first one out of the way, and it came at a big point in the game."
St. Mary's would not get the lead back to two possessions the rest of the way. The final score was Pioneers 70, Gaels 58. DU Bally and Mile High Bally were #happyballz, and the Pioneers were a happy team.
"Coming in, I knew this was going to be a tough game," Bennett said. "I thought we'd have to play well [to win]. I thought we could get it done, but I thought it could go either way." When I suggested that fans would likely be surprised when they saw the final score scroll across their screens on ESPN, that seemed to strike a nerve with Bennett. "Yeah, for whatever reason, people are going to do exactly what you said. As a coach, you know it's not going to be that easy. It's going to be tough. [Denver is] a good team. ... They were 11-4 at home last year, and this team is significantly better [than last year]. ... They've got more depth. I think that [Denver] has a chance to be a good team."
Joe Scott agreed. "The pot's been brewin', and somehow, some way, it's been coming together for us," he said. "And we showed today that we're more than just better [than last year]. We showed today that we're a good basketball team, because we just beat a really good basketball team."
"I just thought we looked like a poised, veteran team that's won a lot of basketball games," Scott added. "Pulling away, never folding, never caving. We look like a team that's been there, done that many times, and that's a great sign."
When I asked Scott if he felt this was a "program-defining win," he was circumspect. "You know, obviously, there are certain games in every program [that are defining games], but you never know what that game is [at the time] ... Once you've accomplished what it is you want, you look back and you say, 'That was the game.' But you don't know" until then which games are "defining."
Scott added, however, "I think our guys are showing maturity, and when you have that, that's what makes program [defining] games show up. It's ability, it's togetherness, and then it's a sense of maturity, knowing we're good, but knowing you've got to show that when you go out and play, and execute the game plan. And our guys did a phenomenal job executing the game plan today."
Coughlin (pictured above fighting for position inside) said the Pioneers were confident coming into Wednesday's game. "We knew we were just as good, if not better than [St. Mary's]," he said.
Still, the magnitude of the win can't be denied: "It hasn't really sunk in yet. It's a big win for us. We're going to enjoy it tonight, and then tomorrow, we get back to work and get ready to go to Cal on Saturday. But for now, it's feels great."
Lewis, the redshirt senior who came back for an extra year after an injury wiped out what would have been his final season in 2010-11, said the win over St. Mary's "feels really good."
"I don't know that we've beaten a team that's as good as them since I've been here," he said. "I think we need to keep it in context, and keep going forward. We'll enjoy this -- because it is a big win, that's a very good team that we beat -- but we need to keep going uphill, you know. ... I think we need to realize that we're four games into the season, and not get too high on this win. But yeah, it feels good. It feels very, very good. Especially with what they did to us last year, out at their place."
Ah yes, the Moraga Massacre. Sleep well, Pioneer fans. It has officially been avenged.
at DENVER 70, SAINT MARY'S 58 11/23/2011
SAINT MARY'S 2-1 (0-0) -- M. Dellavedova 6-14 4-4 20; S. Holt 1-4 0-0 2; R. Jones 9-14 3-4 21; C. Steindl 1-3 0-0 3; M. Young 2-3 2-2 6; B. Levesque 1-2 0-0 2; K. Walker II 1-3 0-0 2; J. Page 0-3 0-0 0; B. Waldow 1-2 0-0 2. Totals 22-48 9-10 58. DENVER 4-0 (0-0) -- B. Olson 2-5 2-2 7; C. Hallam 2-7 0-0 6; B. Stafford 3-7 0-0 8; C. Udofia 5-9 2-2 13; R. Lewis 4-8 9-11 17; R. O'Neale 2-5 2-2 7; T. Hallam 0-3 0-0 0; J. Coughlin 3-5 1-2 10; B. Foeman 1-1 0-0 2. Totals 22-50 16-19 70.
Three-point goals: SMC 5-19 (R. Jones 0-1; C. Steindl 1-3; J. Page 0-2; M. Dellavedova 4-9; B. Levesque 0-1; S. Holt 0-3), DEN 10-20 (R. Lewis 0-2; B. Stafford 2-2; J. Coughlin 3-4; T. Hallam 0-1; C. Hallam 2-4; C. Udofia 1-2; R. O'Neale 1-2; B. Olson 1-3); Rebounds: SMC 32 (R. Jones 11), DEN 23 (R. O'Neale 5); Assists: SMC 8 (M. Dellavedova 3), DEN 17 (C. Hallam 4); Total Fouls -- SMC 17, DEN 17; Fouled Out: SMC-None; DEN-None.