In the end, all victories in conference play count the same in the standings.
Yet, in certain circumstances, some seem a lot more important.
UNO has two tough conference road games this week in which it will be playing for the outright Summit League lead. But to put itself in position to do so, it needed a win Sunday.
And in their only home game during a crucial five-game stretch, the Mavericks found a way to grind out a 75-68 victory over a shorthanded, yet dangerous, South Dakota squad at Baxter Arena.
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The win moves UNO (11-8), a winner of four in a row and eight of its last nine, into a first-place tie with preseason favorite South Dakota State (15-6) in the conference. Both teams are 5-1.
“In conference, every win is just that much more important than what you think,” UNO captain Mitch Hahn said. “This one right here could be the one that sets us over the top at the very end.”
The injury-plagued Coyotes (8-10, 2-4 Summit), with four seniors in walking boots, stunned Purdue Fort Wayne at home last week and nearly won at Oral Roberts on Thursday with only six players.
Those same six led the Mavs 30-27 at the intermission Sunday behind a 13-point, first-half effort from Stanley Umude. But UNO regrouped to shoot 65 percent after the break to pull the game out.
Neither team led by more than seven the entire night. And when the Mavs threatened to pull away, USD answered.
UNO didn’t put the game away until Hahn buried a deep 3-pointer off an inbounds play with 42 seconds left. The Mavs were up 68-66 at the time and had just saved the possession before calling for a timeout.
Seniors Zach Jackson and Hahn, who combined for 29 second-half points, sealed the win at the foul line.
With Fort Wayne and South Dakota State coming up, UNO could’ve been looking past South Dakota. It wasn’t.
“I think that just shows the character of our team this year,” said Jackson, also a captain. “We’re not overlooking anyone in the conference. Everyone in the conference could beat anyone on a given night.”
UNO’s leading scorer, who finished with 21 points, said Saturday’s demolition of Fort Wayne by Western Illinois served as a reminder to the Mavs that anything can happen in this league at any time.
“If that didn’t wake everybody up on the team, I don’t know what will,” Jackson said.
The Mavs hit their first five shots in the second half to move in front for good. KJ Robinson sparked the surge with a 3-pointer, Hahn canned two and JT Gibson scored on a drive to the rim and on a floater.
Then Jackson heated up, draining three consecutive long-range shots to keep UNO in front.
USD coach Todd Lee said that stretch, early in the second half, was the difference in the game.
“We’re asking a lot of our guys,” the first-year coach said. “And I know you’re upset when you lose or give it away during stretches. Sometimes, I just think that comes from fatigue. Our guys are worn out.”
The Coyotes used a seventh player for one minute. But their main six kept the game close. Umude finished with 20 points and Lincoln North Star graduate Triston Simpson added 17 and three steals.
Gibson and Hahn each had 15 points for UNO, which also got 12 and 14 rebounds from Matt Pyle.
Noting that a wounded animal is tough, Mavs coach Derrin Hansen was thrilled to get by the Coyotes.
“In that big scheme of things, you want to win your home games and we had one in this five-game stretch. It’s important you get it because you don’t get it back,” he said. “We’ve won different ways. We’ve won in the 80s and 90s. We’ve had to make shots. We’ve had to defend. But today was a little bit of a grind.”