Just over three weeks ago, at the end of a stretch of 32 days and 10,000 miles between home games, UNO had the unenviable task of trying to snap South Dakota State’s 21-game Summit League homecourt winning streak.
The Mavericks were successful with an 80-71 victory, but the challenge figures to be just as difficult — if not more so — when South Dakota State comes to Ralston Arena for the 7:07 p.m. return game Thursday.
“We have to understand that, No. 1, they are playing very well right now,” UNO coach Derrin Hansen said. “And they’re going to come in motivated after we got them at their place. I know we’ll play with confidence, but there’s more to it than that.”
South Dakota State, the defending Summit champion, is 14-10 overall and is tied for second in the league at 6-3. Following the Jan. 18 loss to UNO, the Jackrabbits lost the next weekend at home to first-place North Dakota State. But since then they’ve won four straight, including road wins at Denver and South Dakota and a 28-point home win over Indiana-Purdue-Fort Wayne, with whom they share second place.
The Jackrabbits are big and wide across the board, with no starter smaller than 6-foot-4. And they can supersize their lineup with Marcus Heemstra stepping into the frontcourt for a lineup of players that stand 6-9 (Heemstra), 6-9 (Florida transfer Cody Larson), 6-8 (star forward Jordan Dykstra), 6-6 (Chad White) and 6-5 (Brayden Carlson).
Carlson scored 26 points against UNO in the first meeting, but Dykstra was held to 12 while making just 4 of 17 from the field and 1 of 9 from 3-point range. The Jackrabbits shot 26.9 percent in the first half and were an uncharacteristic 3 of 19 from 3 for the game. Meanwhile UNO shot 53.8 percent from the field in the first half and got better in the second half, finishing at 55.6 percent.
“We really battled that night,” Hansen said. “We had come off an effort two nights earlier at North Dakota State that wasn’t very good, and we challenged our guys and I thought they really responded well. We made some shots we hadn’t been making, and I’m sure they missed a few they’d normally make.
“But I really liked our effort and our grit. And we have to have it against South Dakota State because they’re so much bigger than us.”
UNO’s season had been at a bit of a crossroads heading into the South Dakota State game as the Mavs had lost three straight games, including their first two in the Summit. Since winning a home game Dec. 22, UNO had played at Conway, Ark., Honolulu, Macomb, Ill., and Fargo, N.D.
Only in the last week, Hansen said, has UNO begun having practices of consistently high quality. He said the team practiced extremely well heading into last Saturday’s win over Western Illinois, and the pattern has continued this week.
“We’re not about excuses,” Hansen said. “But at the end of the day, I think it took us a little while to catch our breath (after the extended time on the road).”
UNO (15-9) has scratched its way back to .500 (4-4) in the Summit and now has a favorable home schedule.
“Four out of six at home,” center John Karhoff said. “We have to be able to protect this place. We have to be optimistic about where we are right now.”
But this weekend will be challenging. Because South Dakota State and North Dakota State are travel partners, it presents clearly the most difficult weekend on the schedule for the remaining league teams. UNO takes on North Dakota State on Saturday at the Ralston Arena.
UNO’s win over South Dakota State is the only road win posted by a league team over either SDSU or North Dakota State (with the exception of NDSU’s win at South Dakota State). IPFW is the only team that has managed to post a weekend home sweep against those two teams.
“The schedule is what it is, and we can’t control it,” Hansen said. “On the back end of it we’ve got some home games, and we hope we can take advantage of it.
“I think there is some validity in the belief that you play the way you practice, and we’ve practiced well again this week. We’ve been focused and locked in, and hopefully that leads to another good performance.”
MAV NOTES: Hansen said freshman guard Jalen Bradley (foot) will not suit up for Thursday’s game.