Pioneers Outlast Leathernecks, 84-78

DENVER – A game that had postseason implications came down to the wire, as the Denver Pioneers (15-14, 9-7) outlasted Western Illinois 84-78 on Saturday (Feb. 29).  

"I was most proud how we overcame several different things in the second half," head coach JD Gravina said. "Denver made a big run, and we battled back from that. We gave ourselves a chance to win."

The final quarter of the regular-season finale was a thriller. Grace Gilmore tied it 68-68 (3:43) on a physical layup in the paint. A minute later, she had the touch again with a trey that made it a one-point game (72-71, Denver).

With the No. 3 seed on the line, both sides traded trips to the charity line to keep it tied. WIU grabbed its first lead, 77-76 of the second half from an Olivia Kaufmann bucket at the line.

Denver responded and took the momentum with and-one to move ahead 79-77 with 26 seconds left to play. Six seconds later, Western got the line, but a 1-2 performance helped Denver secure the regular-season finale and season split.

Danni Nichols (24) and Kaufmann (23) carried the load for the offense. Kaufmann earned her fifth double-double of the season en route to becoming 12th all-time in scoring with 1,227 points. Nichols finished with her fourth game with 20 points this season.

A back and forth game with six lead changes and six occurrences both sides were tied, highlighted the first two quarters in the Mile High City.

Carla Flores began the game with back-to-back threes as the first three baskets in the game were treys. She ended with 11 points and helped Western erase a scoreless drought of four minutes as Denver owned a two-point lead at the end of the first, 18-16.

In the second quarter, Kaufmann and Nichols led the Leatherneck offense. The duo combined for 18 of the 20 points as both nailed four free throws from the line. 

Tied 36-36 to begin the second half, the Pioneers strung together a 13-3 run to start for a nine-point lead (47-38) at 7:11. The three-ball created a one-possession game twice for the Purple and Gold, but the quick start put Denver ahead 59-52 to start the fourth.

Western Illinois enters The Summit League Championships as the No. 5 seed and takes on Oral Roberts the No. 4 seed on Sunday (March 8) at noon in Sioux Falls, S.D.

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