JT Gibson and KJ Robinson have twice been one win away from the NCAA tournament.
When they were freshmen in 2017, UNO lost by two to South Dakota State in the Summit League tournament final. Last year, when they were starters for the second-seeded Mavericks, they lost the final to fourth-seeded North Dakota State.
“We were so close last year,” Gibson said. “There were five of us (on this year’s team) who played last year.”
This year, Gibson, Robinson and the Mavs will have to win three games in three days to earn that elusive NCAA tourney bid. Fifth-seeded UNO opens with a quarterfinal matchup against Oral Roberts at 6 p.m. Sunday in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
“Oral Roberts is a fantastic opponent. They’ve always given us problems with their size,” UNO coach Derrin Hansen said. “They’re bigger than any team in our league. If you get dominated on the glass, it will be a long night.”
UNO and Oral Roberts split their regular-season meetings, each winning at home. Interestingly, UNO outrebounded the Golden Eagles by nine in Tulsa, but was outrebounded 39-28 when it won in Omaha. Oral Roberts is led by Emmanuel Nzekwesi, a first-team all-conference forward who is averaging 17.1 points and 10.2 rebounds.
Since Oral Roberts beat UNO in overtime on Feb. 12, the Mavs are 4-1, the Golden Eagles 3-1.
“They have some great guards who make plays, but if you don’t rebound, you really don’t stand a chance against them,” UNO junior forward Matt Pile said. “It starts with me, Wan (Tut) and Darrius (Hughes) down low.”
Pile nearly averaged a double-double himself this season. He averages 11.9 points and 9.7 rebounds, has had 11 double-doubles and was named the conference defensive player of the year.
“Matt’s been great,” Robinson said. “We get in a bad habit sometimes, thinking Matt’s going to get every rebound. Especially this game, we have to get down there and help him.”
When it comes to scoring, the Mavs look to their two seniors. Robinson, who came off the bench during the first half of the season, is averaging 15.3 points — 16.9 in Summit play — and Gibson adds 13.7 points a game. They have combined for 123 3-pointers this season.
All season the Summit hasn’t had one dominant team. North Dakota State and South Dakota State each went 13-3 to tie for the regular-season title, while UNO was tied for third place going into the final day of the regular season. The Mavs have beaten every Summit opponent except NDSU and South Dakota.
Because of that, the Mavs believe they can win three games in three days.
“It’s more wide open from the outside looking in than what the last two or three or four years have been,” Hansen said. “I think it’s a tournament that a number of teams can win.”