Justin Simmons backed up to his mark at the end of the runway, rocked back to initiate his approach, then shifted his weight and headed for the pit.
But Simmons is no longer competing in the triple jump or long jump, as he did during the first part of his collegiate career. He's dribbling a basketball and manning a wing for the University of Nebraska at Omaha basketball team.
So the end of the runway has become the corner where the halfcourt line meets the sideline. The pit is the hoop, though during his 32-point game Tuesday against Benedictine (Kan.), Simmons often pulled up for jump shots in the 15-foot range.
And he made a bunch of them.
“I think he and Alex (Phillips) have done that to try to give themselves some space and to get a running start,” Mavericks coach Derrin Hansen said of the long-jump approach. “There's some good to it and some bad to it — we're trying to figure it out as we go.
“We've had some difficulties against some of the teams we've played, and we've tried some more 1-on-1 things. We'll probably start going back the other way now.”
Simmons, originally a Division III track athlete who came to UNO after playing basketball at Butler (Kan.) Community College, bumped his scoring average to 12.6 points per game after his outburst against Benedictine. His previous high had been 19 points against Nebraska.
The 6-foot-3 Simmons said he was looking to drive, but jump shots became available.
“I've been watching film of myself, and I know I can get to the basket, so I might as well start, instead of settling for jump shots,” Simmons said. “After watching film, even against the big teams, I saw where I could take an extra dribble and get to the basket, get fouled or get layups.”
Simmons hit 12 of 18 from the field against the NAIA Ravens and also made 7 of 8 free throws while adding career bests of 11 rebounds and four steals.
“He's a tough guard,” said Benedictine coach Ryan Moody, a former Division I assistant at North Dakota. “Anybody who can shoot that pull-up, midrange jump shot like that is a really hard guard, because in scouting reports you worry about taking away the 3 or taking away the drive. He's right there in the middle.”
UNO is back playing Division I schools again, but at least Saturday's 7 p.m. game at Texas-Pan American starts a season-ending 18-game stretch in which the opponents look a little more like the Mavs and a little less like Wisconsin, Iowa State, Nebraska and Texas Tech. But Summit League teams South Dakota State, North Dakota State and Oakland, among others, are far from easy assignments.
“From here it's teams that are a little bit like us, or teams that we want to be like shortly,” Hansen said. “I'm looking forward to the next 10 (weeks) way more than I've enjoyed the last seven weeks, that's for sure.”
UTPA has won three of its last four to improve to 5-8. The Broncs and Mavs both lost to Tulane (UNO by 24, UTPA by 27). UTPA also lost to the Summit's Indiana-Purdue-Fort Wayne in triple overtime.
UTPA was 11-21 last season after back-to-back six-win seasons.
On Wednesday, the school announced it would leave the five-team Great West Conference and head to the Western Athletic Conference next season — joining Cal State-Bakersfield, Chicago State, Idaho, New Mexico State, Seattle and Utah Valley.
It's one last long road trip for UNO before a somewhat consistent schedule kicks in for Summit League play. The Mavs spent 15 of 32 days on the road during a 10-game stretch of away games that concluded Dec. 15.
“We had probably our best practice in a month (Thursday),” Hansen said. “We were able to concentrate on us again instead of game prep and travel. I think the guys sensed that, too. Hopefully that leads to more and more improvement in the second semester.”
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