Even afterward, there was a lot of positives to reflect on.
Paul knew that Pioneer 6-footer Theresa Wirth would pose big – lierally and figuratively – problems.
Paul knew that Denver dominating IPFW in points in the paint would hinder any opportunity for victory.
Paul also knew that he'd need a great performance from his great player, Amanda Hyde (she totaled 28 points, including 22 in the second half), in order to win.
In hindsight, the Mastodons could check all of those concerns off of their list.
But what Paul didn't count on – and truth be told, neither did Denver – was Paige Bradley tying her career-high in points (24) and setting a new career mark for 3-pointers (five).
“I have to give Denver credit, they made shots early,” Paul said. “They had a couple of players step up that don't normally shoot the way the stats showed (today). That's how you win games.
“When you get to this point, there always seems to be an 'x-factor' somewhere.”
The Pionerrs' “x-factor” was standing 21 feet from the basket all night.
With IPFW (15-14) concentrating, with good reason, on not getting pounded down low by the Denver frontcourt, it invariably left a hole somewhere – and Bradley found it.
The sophomore shooter had never made more than four 3-pointers in a game, in fact she barely averaged more than one per game. But against the Mastodons, she stroked in 5 of her 6 attempts.
“We push in transition,” Bradley explained, “and IPFW was running back to the paint to really stop the lay-ups and I'd just come in behind and they didn't pick up players.”
“Picking up players” has been a dilemma for the Mastodons all season, but it generally wasn't Sunday.
The Mastodons defensively finished the regular season at the bottom of the Summit League statistics, but Paul's plan to limit Wirth worked spectacularly. Three weeks after the junior forward had 14 points and as many rebounds in beating IPFW, she totaled just nine points (many in the final minutes) and had just four rebounds.
“We fronted the post really hard and then our help-side defense was pretty good,” Paul said. “The problem with that was, when they would throw a skip (pass), we didn't expect Paige Bradley to stand out there and hit five 3s.”
Paul constructed this team to maximize its strength, which was perimeter shooting. Defense was never its strong suit. But on Sunday, there was a stretch, where IPFW played well enough - at both ends of the floor – to hold its own with any other team in this tournament. And yes, that includes league powerhouse South Dakota State.
After digging itself a 35-28 halftime lead, the Mastodons dug down and defended like their lives depended on it. They held the Pioneers (8-22) without a field goal for the first 6:20 of the second half and turned a seven-point deficit into a 44-37 advantage.
“I honestly believed,” Paul said, “and I know most coaches are optimistic, but I honestly believed when we took that lead, we had turned the corner and we were going to win the basketball game. I saw a look in our players' eyes.”
But the Pioneers rebounded, literally (they held a 40 to 27 advantage on the glass), and went on a 13-2 tear to lead 52-49 with just over eight minutes remaining. That momentum continued and with just over three minutes remaining, Denver led 70-57. However, IPFW had one last push in it and cut its deficit to 71-69 with 48 seconds remaining on a lay-in by senior Rachel Mauk.
“I don't want to turn this into 'Woe is me,'” Paul said. “I really do have to give Denver a whole heckuva lot of credit because I thought that they played very, very well. I thought late, if we could just kind of hang around (then) our pressure would bother them. Which it did.
“They stepped up and made their free throws late and we just ran out of time.”
Following Hyde, IPFW got 16 points and seven assists from Hayley Seibert, while Stefanie Mauk added 10.