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DU Pioneers fall one win short of first March Madness berth with loss in Summit League Tournament championship

The Pioneers will have to wait to audition as Cinderella.

The DU men’s basketball team fell to South Dakota State, 76-68, in the Summit League Tournament championship on Tuesday in Sioux Falls, S.D. It put the Pioneers one victory short of making the program’s first NCAA Tournament, as a win over the Jackrabbits would’ve secured a March Madness berth via an automatic bid as the conference champion.

The Pioneers (17-17) started slow and could never fully find their rhythm in any facet of the game until it was too late.

South Dakota State jumped out to a 22-5 lead within the first 10 minutes, and the Jackrabbits led the entire way as DU’s star point guard Tommy Bruner couldn’t get into his usual groove while battling the effects of a lingering ankle injury that he suffered on March 2 in a loss to St. Thomas.

“South Dakota State proved to be the class of the league during the regular season, and they put an exclamation point on it tonight by winning the tournament,” DU head coach Jeff Wulbrun said. “I thought their physicality and level of toughness in the first half, it was a little overpowering. They just seemed quicker to the 50/50 balls, they seemed quicker on defense, we had trouble getting into the lane and they made it difficult to run our offense.”

Bruner, who led the nation at 24.2 points per game coming in, still ended up with 17 points. But the Pioneers shot the ball poorly for most of the night (38.2% from the field, 30.6% from three) and their defense didn’t carry them as it had through the first two games of the tournament. Wulbrun said Bruner “gutted through” his injury despite not being able to practice over the past week.

The Pioneers made a late run, cutting South Dakota State’s lead to single digits with 1:53 left, but the deficit (23 points at one point) was too great to overcome. And the Jackrabbits had an advantage in the paint for most of the night, finishing with a 34-28 scoring advantage there.

“We spotted them too big of lead, but I’m very proud of the resiliency my guys showed,” Wulbrun said. “That’s kind of who we’ve been all season long.”

Still, even while missing out on a trip to March Madness by one win, 2023-24 was an overall success for a program that’s been revived under Wulbrun, who is in his third year.

The Pioneers were 2-19 the season before Wulbrun took over, but since then, DU’s arrow keeps going up.

The program won 11 games in 2021-22, then 15 last year, and this year’s 17-win tally is the most victories since they posted 22 in 2012-13, when the Pioneers played a season in the WAC before joining the Summit. Tuesday also marked the Pioneers’ first appearance in the Summit League Tournament championship in Denver’s decade in the league.

“We’ve continued to take huge strides here in my third year,” Wulbrun said. “It’s an achievement and an accomplishment that the guys should be proud of, that we were one game away from getting to the NCAA Tournament this year.

“(This year’s team) has continued to bring the program forward, and make progress. I hope that people will look at DU basketball a little differently than they have in the past. … We’ve been in search of respect in the basketball world, and I think playing for an NCAA bid (on Tuesday) would be cause that we’ve arrived from that standpoint.”

Along the way, Bruner emerged as a bonafide star, although the fifth-year senior’s Division I scoring title is in jeopardy as the season winds down. Purdue’s Zach Edey is also averaging 24.2 points per game. The Boilermakers play in the Big Ten Tournament this weekend, giving the center a chance to cement his leapfrog of Bruner.

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