Excitement. It's the lifeblood of college basketball. It's what a rabid fan base brings to a program. It's what cheerleaders and pep bands are charged with generating. It's why the third Thursday and Friday in March are unofficial national holidays. It's what sets Our Game apart from its boring, corporatized counterpart, the Pro Game. (Well, that and defense. Oh, and the fact that in Our Game, basketball is actually being played right now.)
The University of Denver, though, is fundamentally a hockey school, and Denver is fundamentally a pro-sports town. So it can be difficult to get the fan base excited about Pioneer basketball. Students are conditioned to pay attention to what's happening on the ice, not on the court, while locals are conditioned to care more about guys with names like 'Melo (once upon a time) and Tebow (OMG he did it again!) than about DU hoops.
But excitement has been building around the Pioneers as they've started the season 6-1, along the way pulling a Red Line Upset of Southern Miss, a mid-major stunner over Saint Mary's, and a monumental road win at Utah State. On Wednesday night, that excitement was made tangible in the form of DU's student section -- admittedly only a few dozen strong, thanks in part to the school's long winter break -- busting out USU's famous "I Believe That We Will Win!" chant prior to the big game against Iona.
I, regrettably, missed Denver's "I Believe" moment, as I had to skip the first half of the game due to family obligations. Instead, after putting my two- and three-year-old daughters to bed right around tip-off time, I listened to most of the first half on the radio in my car, en route to Magness Arena. From the broadcast, I got the impression that Magness was somewhat lacking in excitement this night, at one point tweeting (from a red light of course), "Sounds like a sparse crowd. Wednesday-night game during winter break, so not a shock, I guess."
Turns out, I was wrong. Once I finally got to the arena at halftime -- weathering a full media parking lot (another sign of excitement, in a way) and arriving with #ballz in my pocket -- I realized the crowd at the game (which, incidentally, Denver led 43-32 at the break) was about five times bigger than it had sounded on the radio. I'd put it at between 3,500 and 4,500 legitimately. (Officially, it was 5,886. But that number is always nonsense.) Maybe the crowd just needed to show a little more...well, you know. Excitement.
And in the second half, they did. As Iona clawed back from a double-digit deficit (notably 61-48 with 11:42 left), turning the game's final minutes into a hard-fought battle between these two mid-major powers -- can I call Denver a "power" yet? is that presumptuous? -- the crowd came alive. Loaded with families and packed with children, thanks in part to DU's wildly successful "Rising Stars" educational outreach program / basketball marketing campaign, DU crowds may not be the most basketball-savvy audiences in Hoops Nation. But they know an exciting game when they see one. And this contest was riveting down the stretch.
Excitement, of course, can sometimes get the better of us. It did for the kid with the mop along the baseline on Denver's side of the court, where I staked out a spot taking pictures from the under-8 timeout until the end of the game. That kid had to be repeatedly reminded, both by event staff and by recently-WWL-featured photographer Andrew Fielding (@skyvan), to stay the heck off the court except when he was mopping. But he just couldn't stop dancing, whooping it up, and occasionally meandering across the dotted black line that everybody except the players and refs are not supposed to cross.
Excitement can get the better of a basketball team, too. Or perhaps not so much "excitement," per se, but rather excitement's close cousin, fear -- which often leads to desperation. As Iona closed Denver's 66-55 lead to 66-60, then 68-64, then 70-67, a feeling of mild, but building, concern became apparent in Denver's normally disciplined, controlled play. The Pios were nervous. They really wanted this game, and they felt it slipping away -- and you could tell. Iona's full-court press, which the Pioneers had weathered all night, suddenly began to rattle them.
They composed themselves long enough to take a 74-67 lead with 3:51 left on yet another highlight-reel-worthy Chris Udofia #OMGDUNX...
...but then things really began to unravel. Iona scored seven consecutive points to close out regulation, with Denver's sense of desperation becoming more palpable on each possession, even as they maintained the lead until 1:12 left. A series of uncharacteristic mistakes -- a player stepping on the baseline, two guards miscommunicating and throwing the ball away -- started to feed on themselves, and it suddenly felt like the Pioneers couldn't do anything right. Excitement had become #PANIC.
Even so, Denver had a chance to win the ballgame in the final seconds of regulation. After a #superhoop attempt by Iona's Lamont Jones airballed out-of-bounds with 5.2 seconds left, Denver inbounded it to Brian Stafford, who looked ahead to see Udofia streaking down the court with an excellent chance to make a game-winning layup, or at least draw a foul. But Stafford, his veins clearly pumping with adrenaline, overthrew Udofia, who had to leap up and toward the baseline to try and get the ball, and wound up knocking it out of bounds.
Joe Scott pleaded with the ref that Udofia had been fouled, but it was clear the real culprit that broke up Denver's potential game-winning play wasn't an Iona player. It was excitement. Overexcitement, in this case.
That sent the game to overtime. Iona jumped out to a 78-74 lead, as Denver failed to score for the first 2 1/2 plus minutes, and the Gaels extended their run to 11 unanswered points since Denver's 74-67 lead (not to mention 23-8 since Blake Foeman missed the "and-one" free throw to complete an old-fashioned #superhoop after his basket made it 66-55 at 9:10 in regulation). It was starting to look like the Pioneers were doomed.
But DU fought back to 78-76 with 2:23 left on a layup by freshman Brett Olson, who led the team with a career-high 20 points. (I told John Templon before the game that "Brett Olson, is a sharp-shooter by reputation, but hasn't really shown it yet; if he has a breakout game against Iona, that would be huge." I'm a genius, clearly.)
The Pioneers missed a chance to tie it when junior Chase Hallam -- perhaps a bit "iced" by the excitement of the moment, in what by now felt like a postseason game -- uncharacteristically missed two free throws with 1:10 to go. The Pioneers finally did tie it when sophomore Udofia nailed two freebies with 19 seconds left. It was 78-all, Iona possession.
Chase Hallam attempted a Gordon Hayward-like desperation heave at the buzzer. Like Hayward's, it hit the rim and bounced out. Denver had lost a heartbreaking overtime thriller, 80-78.
The result should not dampen the growing excitement around this team, which is 6-2 after a brutal opening stretch that could easily have resulted in a below-.500 start. If anything, as good as Iona is, Denver's performance Wednesday should arguably increase their level of respect from the college basketball world. This DU team is, by all appearances thus far, the real deal.
On this night, though, the excitement of the moment was just a little too much for them.
IONA 80, at DENVER 78 12/07/2011
IONA 7-1 (2-0) -- A. Drmic 5-10 6-8 17; L. Jones 8-15 3-3 21; S. Machado 7-15 3-3 19; K. Smyth 3-6 1-1 9; J. Jenkins 1-5 0-0 3; M. Glover 5-7 3-4 13; R. Dezouvre 3-4 2-2 8; T. Ridley 2-4 0-0 4; S. Armand 1-2 0-0 3; T. Fields 0-0 0-0 0; N. Moikobu 0-0 0-0 0; R. James 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 30-58 12-13 80. DENVER 6-2 (0-0) -- C. Udofia 6-11 6-6 18; B. Olson 7-9 2-2 20; C. Hallam 5-8 0-2 11; R. O'Neale 2-5 0-0 5; B. Stafford 4-8 0-0 10; R. Lewis 2-5 0-0 4; T. Hallam 0-0 2-2 2; B. Foeman 3-3 1-3 8; J. Coughlin 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 29-49 11-15 78.
Three-point goals: IONA 8-20 (S. Machado 2-3; J. Jenkins 1-3; K. Smyth 2-5; L. Jones 2-7; S. Armand 1-2), DEN 9-20 (B. Stafford 2-5; B. Foeman 1-1; C. Hallam 1-3; C. Udofia 0-2; R. O'Neale 1-4; B. Olson 4-5); Rebounds: IONA 21 (S. Machado 7), DEN 20 (C. Udofia 5); Assists: IONA 11 (S. Machado 6), DEN 19 (B. Stafford 5); Total Fouls -- IONA 17, DEN 16; Fouled Out: IONA-None; DEN-None.