INDIANAPOLIS – Since the start of conference play, defense has been IUPUI’s trademark. They held each of their first two Summit League opponents under 70 points and combined 37 percent shooting. Despite allowing Denver to shoot 47 percent on Saturday afternoon and 71 percent in the second half, IUPUI made several key defensive plays to hold on to a 52-49 win.
“We like to make it a little bit ugly,” assistant coach Jon-Michael Nickerson said. “We like it to be physical, more defensive-minded. We think any game we keep in the 40s, 50s, 60s, we’re gonna have a great chance to win. That’s the goal.”
Early on it looked like even the 40s might be a stretch for Denver as they shot 5-for-22 in the first half and totaled just 13 points.
“In the first half, they kind of missed some shots they probably should have made. We just kind of got lucky with that,” Marcellus Barksdale said. “Coach Gardner even said at halftime ‘They’re gonna come out, they might hit three threes in a row, but it’s not going to surprise us.'”
Denver didn’t make three three-pointers to open the half, but they did open up with an 11-2 run. An Aaron Brennan jumper 2:37 into the half bumped IUPUI’s lead up to 22-17 after four quick points from Denver, but the Pioneers kept at it. Layups from Brett Olson and Cam Griffin pulled them within one point and a 3-pointer from Olson with 15:50 to go gave Denver a 24-22 lead, their first lead since 8:40 to go in the first half.
Neither team created much breathing room down the stretch and the game would be tied six more times.
Tied 46-46 with under a minute to go, Khufu Najee missed a 3-point attempt but Barksdale got fouled on the rebound. He knocked down two free throws for a 48-46 lead with 53 seconds left. 30 seconds later on Denver’s next possession Barksdale made the first of two big defensive plays. He cheated on a pass towards the left hash mark and stole the ball creating a fast break. The defender altered Barksdale’s shot enough to make him miss at the rim, but D.J. McCall was there for the tip-in and a 50-46 lead.
Denver knocked down two free throws on their next possession and fouled Mason Archie after the inbound. He made one of two free throws to give IUPUI a 51-48 lead. Then came IUPUI’s second big defensive play. after Denver inbounded the ball, Najee fouled Olson with three seconds left before Olson could cross the half-court line or get into the shooting motion. Olson made the first and missed the second hoping Denver could rebound and score forcing overtime, but IUPUI got the rebound and held on.
After IUPUI chose to defend instead of fouling and allowing Oral Roberts to force overtime with a late 3-pointer in their last game, the coaching staff had a change in philosophy.
“It seems like teams are hitting the craziest threes on us late,” Nickerson said. “Coach Gardner and the rest of the staff, as soon as it happened at Oral Roberts, were like ‘okay, this is the last time. We’re never going to get burned on this again.’”
Barksdale, the team’s leading scorer with just under 10 points per game, led the team again in scoring with just 10 points. 10 might not seem like much, but it’s a testament to the offensive balance IUPUI used against Denver. 10 different players scored and only Williams attempted more than six shots. He finished with seven points on 3-for-8 shooting and added seven rebounds.
While IUPUI allowed Denver to shoot 47 percent for the game, the highest they’ve allowed in conference, they also gave up the fewest points in a game this season (49).
After three long weeks away from home, IUPUI will now have to head out on another road trip. They’ll start at South Dakota State on Wednesday and then head to Omaha next Sunday.