UNO’s stay atop the Summit League standings lasted about 24 hours.
South Dakota State’s victory over Purdue Fort Wayne on Thursday pushed the Jackrabbits back into the lead.
While the Mavericks would’ve preferred a different result, it did help clinch a top-two seed for them in the conference tournament. No matter what happens in the final eight days of the regular season, UNO will play on the event’s opening night. And a victory would give the Mavs a day off before the semifinals.
That’s important for the Mavs (17-9, 11-2), winners of 10 of 11, in terms of their long-term goal: reaching the NCAA tournament. But they also have a short-term goal: winning their first Summit title.
UNO enters Saturday’s game at surging North Dakota State (14-13, 8-5) a half-game back in the standings. If they win out, the Mavs will claim the tourney’s top seed by holding the tiebreakers.
Coach Derrin Hansen said his team can’t “look at this as a three-game thing.” Its focus is on the Bison.
“We can’t have the burden to win three games while going up to try to win one,” he said. “That just makes no sense. And our team has been pretty good with that this year. We’re trying to win the one.”
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UNO handled NDSU in its 90-77 victory at Baxter Arena in early January, but both teams have improved since then. The Bison had won five in a row before losing to South Dakota State last Saturday.
“This is not even the North Dakota State we played,” UNO senior Mitch Hahn said. “We just have to focus on what they’re doing now. We have to take away what they’re doing well because they’re playing great.”
North Dakota State is in a battle for the Summit’s No. 3 seed. But it would be in contention for the league’s regular-season championship if not for two last-second defeats at home, where it is 10-2 this season.
The Bison led South Dakota State at the Scheels Center until David Jenkins banked in a half-court shot at the buzzer to beat them 78-77. In late December, Purdue Fort Wayne star John Konchar drained a contested 3-pointer just before the final horn in overtime for a 90-87 Mastodon win.
UNO happened to be the next game on the schedule for North Dakota State after both of those losses.
“They had won five in a row,” Hansen said. “They’re a half-court shot away from winning their last six. They’re playing very well. I think they have great depth.
“They’re better than when they were in Omaha, so are we. If we hold up our part of the bargain, I think it’s going to be a really good basketball game.”
The Mavs, who already have their most league wins in the Summit, enter Saturday on a five-game winning streak. It has created a buzz around the program, but they try to ignore it.
“Sometimes we can get on the hype train. People start talking about you and inflate your ego,” UNO forward Matt Pile said. “We’ve just got to tune all of that out, play our kind of basketball and get the job done.”
One of the keys to Saturday’s preparation for UNO was to put no stock in the first result against NDSU.
“They just had an off-night against us, and we played really well,” Pile said. “Hopefully, we can watch some film from that game and do some of the things we did there. We moved the ball really well and made the extra pass. Hopefully, we can keep that up.”
The Mavs haven’t been in the hunt for a regular-season championship this deep in a season since their transition to the Division I. Hahn said UNO welcomes the pressure that comes with it.
“It’s fun to have the extra intensity at the end,” he said. “Usually, you’re playing for a seed. Now, it’s on us. We can do what we want.
“We don’t have to worry about another team losing or falling or rising. It’s really just on us to play our best basketball. It is what it is now. We’ve got to worry about ourselves.”