Devin Patterson still contends that UNO can beat the top teams in the Summit League.

The Mavericks may have to if they hope to get back into the conference title race after a disappointing week.

The Mavs (15-10), who fell at last-place Western Illinois on Wednesday, never led in their 75-72 loss to Denver (13-11) on Saturday at Baxter Arena in the opening contest of a three-game homestand.

UNO rallied from 16 points down in the second half to tie the score at 68-all on a step-back jumper by Patterson with 1:44 to play, only to have Pioneer guard Thomas Neff sink a decisive 3 at the other end.

As on many other Denver possessions, the freshman’s basket came with the shot clock winding down. The Mavs pulled within one twice after he hit it with 1:12 to go, but they couldn’t get back to even.

UNO, which began the week in a four-way tie for first in the league, slipped to 7-4 in conference play after the Pioneers controlled the pace of the game for nearly 30 minutes and dominated on the glass.

Mavs coach Derrin Hansen said his team didn’t have the right energy or competitiveness from the start.

“I know we kind of got back in it,” he said. “We fought a little bit and scrapped. But championship teams don’t do that. We were in a position five days ago to still play and battle for one of those. And a lot of it was still in our hands. Now, it’s going to take something extraordinary for that to happen.”

The Mavs still play every team in front of them in the Summit standings. But they’re heading the wrong way.

Denver, which fell to the Mavs 69-55 at home last month, built an 11-point first-half lead Saturday by knocking down shots and turning offensive rebounds into second-chance points.

The Pioneers outboarded UNO 22-11 in the first half and turned 11 offensive rebounds into 14 points. They led 35-31 at the break, playing what Denver coach Joe Scott called “the Pioneer way.”

The lead grew to 54-38 before the Mavs turned to a full-court press. Tra-Deon Hollins, the national leader in steals, and Patterson pushed the tempo as UNO crawled back in the closing minutes.

Then the Mavs lost track of Neff after pulling even at 68.

“Sometimes, with these guys, the game gets sped up,” Scott said. “Hollins and Patterson are very good in those situations. Because of that, you can’t really script so many things. It’s not like you’re running a play — you’re running your stuff. You’re making sure you take care of the basketball. And we really did a good job there of just that — we took care of the ball and got Neff an open look.”

And for the second time this week, the freshman drilled a big shot late. He gave the Pioneers (5-6 Summit) the lead for good Thursday when his team came from 15 points back to stun IUPUI in Denver.

Patterson paced UNO with 26 points, 19 of which came in the second half. Tre’Shawn Thurman finished with 17 points, while Hollins tallied seven points, six rebounds and seven steals.

It wasn’t enough to stop the Mavs from a second straight loss and third in four outings.

“The whole first half and a lot of the (second), we were playing into them,” Hollins said. “We turn a lot of teams over. We started pressing up and speeding the game up. And that got them a little bit out of their comfort zone.”

UNO had a chance to force overtime on the game’s final possession, but an off-balance 3-point attempt by Tim Smallwood bounced off the rim. Denver hit 25 of its 29 foul shots to escape with a road victory.

Hansen said the Mavs need to turn things around in a hurry with preseason conference favorite South Dakota State and reigning league champion North Dakota State both heading into Omaha this week.

“Whatever we’re in, we have to get out of quickly because we have a championship team coming in here Wednesday, and you have the team playing for a seed coming in here Saturday,” he said. “And they’re both playing well right now.”

Patterson said UNO needs to find a way to recapture the edge it had earlier in the conference season.

“I think we got too comfortable because we were tied for first place,” he said. “We can’t be comfortable.”

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