Mitch Hahn for the win. Mitch Hahn forever.
What on earth did we witness at Baxter Arena on Thursday night? I'm not sure, but those in the record crowd will never forget the incredible last moment of Hahn's winning jump shot and the sound it made afterward. It took your breath away.
It was the best moment, in the best game, on the best night for UNO basketball since I arrived here in 1991. Coach Derrin Hansen has been at UNO for 22 of those years and he echoed the same sentiment.
"Can't think of a better one," Hansen said.
What a game, what a night, what a shot. UNO's 85-84 win over Summit League king South Dakota State, and senior Mike Daum, had all sorts of conference standing ramifications and deep meaning for the Mavs going forward in the league and in this city. But all that was overshadowed by the image of the night, the night of Mitch Hahn.
It's probably not right to say that Hahn is UNO's version of Daum, but there are some similarities. Hahn is a 6-8 senior, like Daum. And he's a Nebraska kid, from Fremont, made all-state, with family sports ties (father Dave played basketball for Kearney State). Hahn also is a mobile "big," running the floor, shooting three's (4-5 on Thursday night), picking up a bunch of rebounds (eight) with good passing skills (seven assists). Mostly, he's a gamer. He wants the ball when it counts and expects to deliver.
After 39 minutes and 55 seconds of a fun night of basketball, back and forth, SDSU going up 16 early in the second half and UNO clawing back to take the lead, it came down to the two Nebraska boys.
Daum posted up low and took the pass with the shot clock winding down. He turned on the baseline and was fouled. He made both free throws to give SDSU a 84-83 lead with 5.5 seconds left.
SDSU coach TJ Oztelberger called two time outs — the second after watching UNO line up for the inbounds — before the magic moment.
With no Jackrabbit defending the inbounds pass, Hahn ran up and took the inbounds pass on the run, then drove down the right side, nearly the entire length of the court, in five seconds. He got to his baseline with nowhere to go but up — and took a 10-foot fadeaway.
The ball swished with 0.2 seconds left. And Baxter Arena made a noise it hadn't ever made for basketball.
"That was a great college basketball game," said Hansen as he walked off the court.
UNO students stormed the court, hugging and jumping with their team, and everyone knew this wasn't just another game for UNO. This was a big moment, maybe the biggest.
The Mavs have sat in the backseat in this area when it comes to college hoops. Creighton does most of the driving and Nebraska takes the wheel now and then. The Mavs have had good players, and almost made the NCAA tourney a few years ago, but mostly it seems UNO is in the background, trying to get CU to play them or somebody to pay attention.
UNO has the wheel now. For the rest of this winter, while NU and CU try to make something of these last few weeks, UNO has the stage. The Mavs are one half game behind SDSU at the top of the Summit, and they're in the game for the league title. These two could rematch in the Summit tourney in Sioux Falls in March, which is like an SDSU home game, and now that will be revenge game for the Jackrabbits. But now the Mavs know they can win it.
The only downside to tonight's game was that UNO only has two home games left — Saturday and next Wednesday. UNO has a loyal following, who enjoy the intimate atmosphere at Baxter, with beer and a fun style of up-tempo basketball and guys who play hard. Because of the matchup, a record 4,228 showed up on Thursday night, many of them casual fans who no doubt will come back and pass the word. This team is fun to watch.
This night, too, was for the folks who said it was crazy for UNO to play Division I basketball. Let's get real crazy: UNO is good enough to win the Summit League tourney and play in this year's NCAA tournament. It was the kind of night when you could see that far.
There was a cool moment afterwards, when the floor and arena had cleared. Hahn was doing a postgame radio interview at press row when Daum walked up. He was on his way to see his family and friends in the SDSU section. He stopped on his way to shake hands and embrace Hahn at press row, the two Nebraska kids, such a great advertisement for basketball in this state, class and talent you don't have to go to CU or NU to see.
Hahn said Daum told him, "Great game. Great shot." Later, I asked Hahn about Daum, and he said: "We don't know each other that well but we played high school basketball in the state and we know about each other. People in Omaha try to make him out to be the villain, but he's great for the game in Nebraska."
The same can be said for you, Mr. Hahn.
As he walked into the interview room, Hahn said to himself, "Thank the lord. Thank the lord." Then, in his opening comments, he made the same statement.
Sitting next to him, senior guard Zach Jackson said, "Thank God for Mitch Hahn."
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