UNO’s run to a potential Summit League championship began in the wake of a late-December loss.
The Mavericks were riding a four-game winning streak when Oral Roberts arrived in Omaha for the middle contest of a three-game, six-day conference-opening homestand at Baxter Arena.
But the warning signs for a struggle were there. The Mavs had been outrebounded in seven of their previous eight contests. And the Golden Eagles brought the top rebounding team in the Summit.
ORU limited UNO to five rebounds in the first half, and shot 63 percent from the field while doing so. It finished at plus-14 on the boards and turned three late second-chance baskets into a victory.
The 87-84 defeat served as a wake-up call for the Mavs (18-9), who have won 11 of 12 games since. During that stretch, only one team, South Dakota State, has managed to outrebound UNO.
Senior Zach Jackson said this week that Oral Roberts exposed his team’s deficiencies in rebounding and being tough around loose balls. Classmate Mitch Hahn said it taught the Mavs to focus on the moment.
“That game just kind of showed us that nothing is going to come easy for us,” Hahn said. “I remember back then me and JT (Gibson) talking about trying to get these three games at home. Maybe we kind of overlooked that second one trying to worry about all three. Nothing is going to come easy. We have to take one game at a time and try to focus on that opponent — try to focus on one team and beat them.”
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UNO has done that ever since, and is now on the brink of its first Summit championship.
The Mavs enter Thursday’s rematch with Oral Roberts (10-20) a half-game behind idle SDSU in the standings. But they hold the tiebreaker over the Jackrabbits.
If UNO avenges its loss to the Golden Eagles then wins at last-place Denver on Saturday, it will earn the No. 1 seed for the conference tournament and also lock up the Summit’s automatic NIT berth. The regular-season champion in mid-major leagues is rewarded with that bid if it doesn’t win the conference’s league tourney to earn the automatic NCAA tournament berth.
UNO, which moved up to Division I in 2011, has never qualified for either postseason event.
“It’s just fun to have something to play for at the end, to do something that hasn’t been done here at Omaha,” Jackson said. “Playing for a league championship this weekend is all the motivation you need.”
The Mavericks, 12-2 in the Summit and assured of a top-two seed, have won six straight to put themselves in this spot. UNO hasn’t recorded a seven-game winning streak since moving to D-I.
To reach that, the Mavericks must overcome an Oral Roberts team that had one of its best performances of the season against them. Forward Emmanuel Nzekwesi had a career-high 28 points and 14 rebounds, Kevin Obanor went 6 for 8 from the field and guard DeShang Weaver canned 7 of 10 3-pointers.
Still, UNO came from 11 points down to lead in the second half and had a half-court shot at the buzzer that could’ve tied it. And the Mavs are playing much better now.
“They’ve done a tremendous job from the beginning of the year until now,” UNO coach Derrin Hansen said. “They’ve done everything we’ve asked and more. ... We can set the (Summit) course all we want.”
Unless Western Illinois upsets South Dakota State in Brookings on the final day of the regular season Saturday, the Mavs need to win out to claim the title. UNO, however, is focused only on Oral Roberts.
“We’re excited for these last two games, but it’s going to be businesslike,” Hansen said. “I know it’s boring, but we have to worry about Thursday because Saturday won’t mean as much (if we lose). We have to figure out how to do Thursday and then move on.”