It's got to be one of the most dangerous games for a Division I college basketball team -- the seventh-place game at the Carrs-Safeway Great Alaska Shootout against the Division II hometown underdogs aching for a victory in their showcase event.
The Denver Pioneers faced that situation against UAA Saturday afternoon, and they survived it 78-71 in part because they were aching for a victory too.
A 22-win team the last two seasons, Denver was 0-4 coming into the game against UAA, which was trying to avoid its first winless Shootout since 2007.
The Pioneers dominated the second half with a defense that took away UAA's 3-point shot and with the hot hand of Brett Olson, who poured in 15 of his 19 points after halftime.
"We've had some tough games, and to get this first win really gets the monkey off our back," Olson said.
UAA (5-4) knows about tough games. It was painfully close to a first-round win over TCU before succumbing 73-70, fell 97-87 to Indiana State on Friday and had Denver on the ropes 44-29 in Saturday's first half.
"It's a disappointing loss, I think everybody would understand that," UAA coach Rusty Osborne said. "But I'm not disappointed in my team. I wouldn't trade this team for any other team."
Then Osborne provided a silver lining when he recalled what happened the last time UAA went 0-3 in the Shootout.
"We'd like to win a (Shootout) game," he said, "but the last time we didn't we won 18 in a row right after and wound up in the Final Four.''
The Seawolves rode Kyle Fossman's 16 points to first-half leads of 13-4, 25-17 and 44-29 before Denver finished with an 8-0 run to trim the lead to 44-37 at halftime.
Denver carried that momentum into the second half, benefitted from four UAA turnovers in the first five minutes and claimed its first lead since the opening 30 seconds on Olson's 3-pointer that made it 49-47.
The Seawolves led one more time, 60-59 with less than eight minutes left, but they struggled to score on most of their second-half possessions. They missed four of their first five shots and six of their first eight. They wound up hitting 10 of 24 (41.7) for the half.
That was in stark contrast to the first 20 minutes, when UAA shot 53.6 percent and buried 10 of 16 3-pointers, with Fossman hitting four of seven and Travis Thompson hitting four of four behind the arc. In the second half, with fewer perimeter shots falling, UAA was forced to attack the bucket against the bigger Pioneers.
"We needed to zero in," Olson said of Denver's second-half defensive adjustment. "In the first half we weren't talking, we were too worried about our own man.
"Our focus is to run teams off the free throw line and make them make hard two-point shots. (In the second half), we all had the focus to stop them at the free throw line."
Denver's Chris Udofia, a 6-6 senior, blocked shots by Fossman and Thompson in the early going of the half and finished with four blocks to go with 15 points and seven assists. Jalen Love added 13 points and Cam Griffin brought down 10 rebounds.
Denver (1-4) lost to Cal and Stanford before coming to Anchorage, where losses to Harvard and Pepperdine put the Pioneers in the last-place game.
Against Pepperdine, the Pioneers faced a team that shot a tournament-record 71.4 percent. In the first four minutes Saturday, UAA shot the exact same percentage to race to a 13-4 lead.
Fossman, a 6-foot senior, scored all of his points in the first half and Thompson, a 6-1 junior, had 12 of his game-high 20.
Teancum Stafford, a 6-5 junior, came alive in the final 10 or 11 minutes of the second half, when Denver was dealing with two starters with four fouls and two with three fouls. He worked hard for his 13 points, seven rebounds, three assists and two steals.
Brian McGill delivered eight points, eight assists and two turnovers in 40 minutes, and Colton Lauwers came off the bench to add eight points, four rebounds and three assists for UAA.
The Seawolves, who are ranked 19th nationally among Division II teams, return to D-II competition Saturday, when they host the rival UAF Nanooks in their Great Northwest Athletic Conference opener.
"We haven't reach our ceiling yet," Osborne said. "We've got a lot of room for growth, which is exciting."
Reach Beth Bragg at email@example.com or 257-4335.
DENVER (78) -- Griffin 3-9 0-0 6, Bernstine 3-5 2-2 8, Udofia 6-11 2-2 15, Love 5-10 1-1 13, Olson 7-11 1-3 19, Rucker 4-7 0-0 9, Engesser 1-2 0-0 3, Byrd 2-4 0-0 5. Totals 31-59 6-8 78.
UAA (71) -- Stafford 5-7 2-4 13, Mears 1-3 0-0 2, McGill 3-8 2-4 8, Thompson 7-12 0-0 20, Fossman 5-12 2-2 16, Leckband 1-2 2-2 4, Lauwers 3-7 0-1 8, Blossom 0-1 0-0 0, McTier 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 25-52 8-13 71.
Denver 37 41 -- 78
UAA 44 27 -- 71
3-point goals -- Denver 10-21 (Griffin 0-1, Udofia 1-2, Love 2-6, Olson 4-7, Rucker 1-2, Engesser 1-1, Byrd 1-2), UAA 13-26 (Stafford 1-2, Thompson 6-8, Fossman 4-9, Leckband 0-1, Lauwers 2-5, Blossom 0-1). Rebounds -- Denver 29 (Griffin 10), UAA 29 (Stafford 7). Total fouls -- Denver 15, UAA 12. Fouled out -- none. Assists -- Denver 22 (Udofia 7), UAA 21 (McGill 8). Turnovers -- Denver 7 (Griffin 3, Olson 3), UAA 10 (three players with 2). Blocks -- Denver 5 (Udofia 4), UAA 2. Steals -- Denver 6 (Olson 2), UAA 5 (Fossman 2, Stafford 2). Officials -- Mason, Watts, McNew.