UNO will open the back half of its Summit League schedule alone in second place in the conference.
The Mavericks (12-9) won six of eight games on their first swing through the league, but not many of those victories came easily. UNO had to grind out a few of them, and the Mavs haven’t forgotten about that.
UNO’s first meeting with North Dakota (9-13) is a perfect example. The Mavs left Grand Forks with a 92-91 victory, but they led that game for less than two minutes. They needed a clutch 3-pointer from Mitch Hahn in the closing seconds and a late free-throw miss by the Fighting Hawks to escape with the win.
The teams meet for the second time Sunday as North Dakota makes its first trip to Omaha as a Summit League member. UNO and the Hawks open the second half of conference play at noon at Baxter Arena.
Junior guard JT Gibson said the Mavs haven’t forgotten how tough it was to win in North Dakota.
“It will definitely be important to look back at that game,” he said. “We struggled in the first half a lot. We have to learn what they like to do, and what we didn’t do well, and then just keep moving forward.”
The Fighting Hawks dominated UNO in the paint early and hit some big shots from the outside while shooting 56 percent from the field in the first half of that game. North Dakota was up by 14 points before half.
The Mavs rallied, however, to open a 4-1 stretch in which they played four of five games on the road. They split the last two of those with Purdue Fort Wayne and South Dakota State.
“You want to win them all. I get it,” UNO coach Derrin Hansen said. “It was a good split for us on the road. No one’s won in Brookings yet. And no one’s won in Fort Wayne now except us.”
Those two teams, which currently sit first and third in the league standings, will have to make return trips to Omaha in the second half. If the Mavs can get past the Fighting Hawks on Sunday and beat South Dakota in Sioux Falls next Thursday, they’d likely be playing for the conference lead against South Dakota State again.
“We feel like we’re in a good position to win the conference,” Gibson said. “That’s one of our goals.”
Hahn, a senior captain, believes the key to sustain success is improving on past performances.
“We know, looking back on some games, that we didn’t play our best,” he said. “Sometimes on defense, sometimes on offense, we’ve had some lulls here and there. We know that we were lucky enough to get out of some of those games. But if we can get on the scout a little bit more, pay a little more attention to detail, we can get that much better against some of the teams that we’ve played.”
That begins against the Fighting Hawks, who are 3-6 in the Summit but can’t be overlooked.
“Their record isn’t like how they really are as a team,” Gibson said. “They’re a really good team in our eyes.”
UNO performed well in the first half of its league schedule regardless of whether it had a number of days to prepare for an opponent or it was playing on a quick turnaround. The Mavs will have time to prepare in full for each of their next two opponents, which should be an advantage before playing South Dakota State and Fort Wayne at home with just a day separating the games.
“We hope that’s kind of the situation for us,” Hansen said. “I think the schedule has worked out in our favor a little bit. We’ve had some games in a row where I thought we could keep our momentum going. Then coming off a couple of hard ones in a row, I thought we’ve had time to regroup and refocus.”
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