You can recognize a signature moment as soon as you see it.
Michael Jordan switching hands mid air against the Lakers. Allen Iverson stepping over Ty Lue. LeBron James chasing down Andre Iguodala.
Tommy Bruner may not have had one of those singular moments Thursday night against South Dakota, but the nation’s leading scorer does now have the signature game of what’s been a signature season.
His 49 points – and game-winning steal – led the Pioneers to their instant classic, double overtime win and it was, as was tweeted out last night, the best game any college player has had this season. As the dust settles after the thriller in Denver, the broader context is as impressive as it would seem.
Only 16 players since 2010 have scored that many points, with Bruner among just 13 of those players to do it against a Division I opponent. No player has scored that many this year, or ever in Denver program history. And true to the player he’s been all year, Bruner’s eight assists are the highest mark for any of those 49+ games over the past 14 seasons.
If there was a standout play, it might have been with 10 seconds left in the first overtime.
Trailing 96-92, Bruner stepped back to take a three and seemed to notice Coyote guard Kaleb Stewart had overcommitted trying to block the shot. He almost hesitated and double clutched, drew the contact and still made the three and ensuing free throw to send it to double overtime.
But that would, as it turned out, not be that.
The Pioneers had to battle back from a barrage of USD daggers in the final minute of the second overtime. Stewart – whose own tremendous 44-point outing became an unfortunate footnote – hit a go-ahead three with 1:05 left seemed to have done the trick for the Coyotes. Same for the loss of possession after a no-call on a Bruner drive to leave USD up two points with six seconds left.
In the end, Bruner’s steal on the ensuing inbound and eventual three from Isaiah Addo-Ankrah would fashion a win on the fifth-year guard’s historic game.
“Backbone is a great word,” Denver head coach Jeff Wulbrun told the broadcast team after the game. “We showed some backbone tonight.”
The scoring outburst cranks Bruner’s season average to 26.2 points per game, nearly a full three points per game higher than anyone else. That helped him get the headlines, but wasn’t what was on his mind after the game. A steal, a charge, he’d take any game-winning play, he told 9NEWS Denver.
And there have been plenty of wins this season.
At 13-8 (4-2), the Pioneers are well on track to have their best season in over a decade. The Summit is wide open, as we wrote last week, which DU has acutely felt falling at North Dakota last weekend. Stewart and the Coyotes, despite being 2-9 in their last 11, are no walkover, having tripped up high-flying St. Thomas over that stretch. And, of course, it just took a historic game from Bruner for them to not leave Denver with a big road win.
The Summit’s biggest individual story, though, has clearly been the fifth-year guard from Columbia, S.C.
As we profiled back in December, Bruner comes from a family of college basketball stars. He’s also making an impact off the court through his Be Different Foundation, a non-profit that helps kids. The 49-point outburst also helped shine a lot on the relationship between Bruner and his head coach.
Earlier this year, when asked why he chose Denver it took Bruner a millisecond to answer: Wulbrun. That bond has only grown, with the pair each giving emotional quotes to 9NEWS Denver after the game.
“Not being around my father a lot, that can take a toll on a man, and having Jefff Wulbrun teach me how to be a man, that’s helped me on the court,” Bruner said.
“We have a special bond. We have a lot of things in common that have drawn us close,” Wulbrun said. “I’m as proud as a father would be to see growth in a young man like I’ve seen in Tommy.”
49 points for @TommyBruner0 tonight but he made a point to talk about his relationship with @DU_MensHoops Head Coach @JeffWulbrun. Tommy wasn't around his father a lot but Wulbrun has been like a father-figure to him @9NEWSSports @TheSummitLeague @DU_Pioneers #9sports pic.twitter.com/gf6jKe89Jf— Jacob Tobey (@JacobRTobey) January 26, 2024
That on-court growth, which has been topping the national scoring leader chart virtually all season, now has its signature game.