HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - University of Denver senior guard Brian Stafford (Walnut Creek, Calif.) scored 19 points, but the No. 3 seeded Pioneers fell 67-63 to Western Kentucky in the Sun Belt Conference Tournament Semifinals at Summit Arena on Monday night, eliminating Denver (22-9) from the tournament.
Freshman guard Royce O'Neale (Killeen, Texas) recorded 15 points and nine rebounds, while sophomore forward Chris Udofia (Irving, Texas) and senior forward Rob Lewis (Colorado Springs, Colo.) added 12 and 11 points, respectively.
"It is March and when you get to this time every game is going to be this way," head coach Joe Scott said. "I know our team has made tons of progress this year in understanding that and being able to play this time of year, but tonight we just didn't play as well as we could and the ball seemed to roll around and out for us. We happened to be playing a team that is playing really, really well. You have to give them tons of credit for the job that Ray (Harper) has done and how well they started to play at the end of the year."
The game remained tight throughout with neither team leading by more than eight points, and the second half never saw a lead bigger than five points.
No. 7 seeded Western Kentucky (14-18) shot a scorching 55.9 percent (19-of-34) from the field, including 5-of-8 (62.5 percent) from three-point range, while holding the Pioneers to 45.1 percent (23-of-51) from the field and 38.5 percent (5-of-13) from beyond the arc.
The second half saw eight ties and six lead changes, as the teams traded baskets. Stafford nailed a three-pointer to put Denver on top 61-60 with 2:35 remaining in the contest. WKU's Derrick Gordon responded with two of his seven free throws and George Fant scored two of his 19 points to give the Hilltoppers a three-point lead.
Stafford drove the basket with 31 seconds remaining to cut the deficit back to one point.
After Kahlil McDonald hit 1-of-2 free throws with 28 seconds on the clock, the Pioneers had a chance to tie or take the lead. Stafford fired on a closely contested three-point attempt, and O'Neale grabbed the offensive rebound, but Gordon blocked the follow. McDonald sealed the game with a pair of free throws in the final second.
"Tonight it just seemed like the ball was rolling around and in for them and around out for us," Scott said. "I thought we did a really good job of just hanging in there and weathering that kind of game and we just didn't have enough to pull it out."
WKU built an eight-point lead with 12:56 left in the first half, but the Pioneers responded with a 14-1 run over the following four minutes. The Hilltoppers continued the series of runs, ending the first half with six-straight points.
The Pioneers hit 48.0 percent (12-of-25), including 3-of-6 from three-point range in the half. However, WKU shot 55.6 percent (10-of-18) from the field, 80.0 percent (4-of-5) from three-point range and 83.3 percent (10-of-12) from the free throw line to take a 34-31 lead to the break.
Denver now must wait on possible inclusion in a postseason tournament.
Fans interested in reserving 2012-13 Denver Pioneers season tickets are encouraged to submit a ticket information request on DenverPioneers.com.