With UNO up by a point and South Dakota State’s leading scorer driving the lane in the final seconds, Matt Pile knew he had to make his presence felt.
Pile’s block of a layup attempt by Douglas Wilson in the lane with six seconds left helped preserve an 81-78 Maverick win in front of 4,234 at Baxter Arena in the Summit League opener for both teams.
Marlon Ruffin gave UNO some breathing room, hitting a pair of free throws — his only points of the game — following Pile’s block. Then Noah Freidel’s attempt to tie the game for SDSU at the buzzer bounced off the front of the rim.
JT Gibson led the Mavs with 21 points while Pile added 18. KJ Robinson scored 16 and Ayo Akinwole made it four Mavs in double digits with 10.
Pile said he didn’t get much of a hand on the Wilson layup attempt.
“You know, I saw him driving,” the junior forward said. “I knew he was going to up with his left on that left side, so I tried to get there. And I barely got a fingertip on it, but it was enough to make the play.”
Coach Derrin Hansen said Pile did all the things necessary to earn the block.
“He understands where he needs to be to get his body vertical and straight up and down,” Hansen said. “But he came over, got straight up and got a piece of that thing. He can sniff out the ball.
“His defensive prowess for where they’re trying to get to the ball, whether it’s on a dribble-drive or a post-up or in ball-screen situations, he’s been really good for us back there protecting that rim and protecting the paint for us.”
The crowd was the largest in UNO men’s basketball history, besting last season’s attendance record on Valentine’s Day against SDSU by six.
Pile gave the audience a finger wave after his block.
“The crowd was into it at the end, I just thought it’s always fun to interact with them, so it’s just something I’ve always wanted to pull out of my bag,” Pile said.
The win was the Mavs’ (8-8, 1-0 Summit) 13th consecutive at Baxter Arena dating to last season.
SDSU led 42-36 at halftime behind 14 points from Freidel and 12 from Alex Arians, who replaced the injured Brandon Key at point guard.
But the Mavs shot 56.3% (18 of 32) in the second half to the Jackrabbits’ 13 of 32 (40.6%).
And after committing seven turnovers in the first half, the Mavericks had one after halftime.
UNO trailed 76-75 with 2:11 to play but allowed the Jackrabbits two points the rest of the way.
Gibson said the team got locked in defensively in the second half.
“Their bigs were killing us in the first half, but it’s a team game, so we took that to heart, basically,” the senior guard said. “In those games, we’ve just really got to stay together, you know. Tight game. Make the right decisions, and play with each other.”
Hansen said the Mavs’ ability to outwork the Jackrabbits (9-7, 0-1) down the stretch proved to be the difference.
“I thought in the second half, I thought we won more than our fair share of 50-50 balls to keep some of our plays alive and take away some opportunities for them,” Hansen said.
David Wingett (Winnebago) and Baylor Scheierman (Aurora) combined for 14 points for SDSU.
The Mavs next host Oral Roberts at 7 p.m. Saturday.