No matter when KJ Robinson enters a game, UNO coach Derrin Hansen says, the senior guard makes the Mavericks better.
So for this season, Robinson has been providing a boost from the bench.
“At first it was different, but I don’t mind it at all,” said Robinson, who started 56 of 57 games the previous two seasons. “Whatever Coach feels is best for the team, I’m willing to do that.”
The 6-foot Robinson is putting up the best numbers of his career. After averaging 11.1 points in 30 minutes per game as a junior, he is averaging 13.2 points in 28.7 minutes this season. His shooting percentages across the board are his best in his four years at UNO (.438 field goal, .421 3-point and .875 free throw).
“He’s been fantastic,” Hansen said. “He’s a veteran, he understands it’s more important to finish games than start games. And I think in a weird way (coming off the bench) helps give him a feel for the game without feeling it out himself.”
Outside of two games when leading scorer JT Gibson was hampered by a back injury — Robinson started those games — UNO has used the same starting lineup all season. Robinson missed the first three games because of a violation of team rules, and once he returned, Hansen hasn’t felt the need to tinker with the starting five.
Robinson said he’s grown from missing those early-season games.
“It kind of humbled me a little bit and showed the game can be taken away,” he said. “It made me sit back and realize the love I have for the game, and I wanted to be out there with my teammates.”
The Mavs have narrowly won their past two games, and Robinson was instrumental down the stretch in both.
Against Montana on Dec. 21, he scored seven of his season-high 24 points in the final 40 seconds, then assisted on Gibson’s tying 3-pointer with three seconds left to force overtime.
Last Sunday against South Dakota State, Robinson’s layup with 26 seconds left put UNO up 79-76. The Mavs held on to win 81-78 as Robinson finished with 16 points.
“It was big for our confidence because when you’re able to pull out those close games, it sort of brings a unity to the team. It keeps us all together,” he said.
Added Hansen: “We needed them. We can try to simulate things in practice that are close, but until the lights are on, it’s not the same. Hopefully those two games will benefit us in league play because there’s always close games in league play.”
On Saturday, UNO looks to go to 2-0 in Summit play when it hosts Oral Roberts at 7 p.m. Oral Roberts lost at South Dakota State on Thursday, but the Golden Eagles have swept UNO the past two seasons. Last season they handed the Mavs two of their three conference losses (87-84 and 84-80).
Hansen said a key will be rebounding as Oral Roberts’ Emmanuel Nzekwesi is averaging a double-double at 16.4 points and 10.1 rebounds. Robinson said he watched the SDSU-ORU game on Thursday night.
“We know Oral Roberts is going to come in here ready to go,” he said.
UNO and Oral Roberts are playing a doubleheader Saturday as the women’s teams will meet at 2 p.m. Both are 5-9 and seeking their first Summit win.
Oral Roberts started the season 3-0 before twice losing four in a row. In Thursday’s 58-44 loss at South Dakota State, Oral Roberts shot 28% from the field.
Oral Roberts’ Keni Jo Lippe is the league’s leading scorer, averaging 18 points per game. UNO’s leading scorer is guard Claire Killian, who is averaging 9.6.