A little history lesson
The last time Denver played Southern Miss, on November 19, 2005, the Pioneers’ coach was Terry Carroll — the man who preceded Joe Scott — and Golden Eagles coach Larry Eustachy was in his second year at USM. (He’s now in his eighth.) The game was played in Fairbanks, Alaska, in the semifinals of the Top of the World Classic — a preseason tournament that has since ceased to exist.
When the Pios and Eagles clashed in the semis, it was every bit as ugly as the 44-30 final score indicates, according to the game story by Tim Mowry of the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, which I dug up online:
Ugly would have been a compliment to describe Denver University’s 44-30 win over Southern Mississippi in Saturday night’s Top of the World Classic semifinal, but Pioneers coach Terry Carroll accepted it with a smile. “It doesn’t matter come April when you’re looking back and you’re in the (NCAA) tournament,” said Carroll after the Pioneers rallied from a six-point halftime deficit to beat a Golden Eagles team that couldn’t have bought a basket with a platinum credit card.
It was the lowest scoring game in the 10-year history of the tournament.
“It’s nice to be part of history,” quipped Carroll when informed of that trivia.
The Pioneers (2-1) will meet the University of Illinois-Chicago, a 66-63 winner over San Diego State earlier Saturday, in today’s 5 p.m. championship game at the Carlson Center.
Southern Mississippi coach Larry Eustachy, who spent much of the night berating referees and his team during timeouts, didn’t make an appearance in the postgame interview room but chances are he wouldn’t have had much to say.
Leading 21-15 at the half, the Golden Eagles were only 2-of-18 (11 percent) from the field in the second half and scored only nine points. For the game, Southern Mississippi (2-1) shot just 26 percent. Both teams were sloppy, with each committing 19 turnovers.
The difference proved to be Denver’s star big man, 6-foot-11 Yemi Nicholson, who spent much of the first half on the bench with two fouls before taking control of the game for the Pioneers in the second half.
Held to just two points on 1-of-2 shooting in seven minutes of the first half, Nicholson dominated on both the offensive and defensive ends in the latter 20 minutes. Nicholson, picked as the Sun Belt Conference preseason Player of the Year, finished with 14 points on 7-of-12 shooting, six rebounds and three blocked shots.
“In the first half I wasn’t being smart,” said Nicholson, a senior who is two blocks shy of breaking the DU school record of 129 rejections. “In the second half I started going to the basket and doing what I feel comfortable doing.”
Until Nicholson took over, it appeared the game of Ultimate Dodgeball held at halftime would provide better entertainment than the game for the 3,230 fans in attendance.
From the moment he grabbed the opening rebound of the second half, Nicholson let his presence be felt inside. Though he missed his first shot of the half, Nicholson took over by scoring eight straight points inside, blocking two shots and making a steal during a 10-0 run that put Denver ahead 27-23 with 9:43 left.
Southern Mississippi experienced scoring droughts of 7:23 and 5:01 in the second half and never was able to mount a challenge after Denver took the lead.
“Our guys were able to come out and put together a good second half, especially on the defensive end,” said Carroll.
The Pioneers, incidentally, went on to beat Illinois-Chicago in the final, 52-48, to win the 2005 Top of the World Classic. Southern Miss would finish the season 10-21; Denver would finish 16-15.
Denver would not, however, go to the NCAA Tournament, as Coach Carroll hopefully mused after the USM win. Indeed, six years later, Denver still has never played in the Big Dance… but perhaps a win over Southern Miss tonight really will be a step toward that long-awaited achievement. We shall see.