During its recent run toward the top of the Summit League, UNO had been living on the edge.
The Mavericks had continued winning while overcoming big deficits and squandering late leads.
It finally caught up to them Thursday at Oral Roberts.
They rallied from 13 points down in the first half to claim a nine-point advantage with six minutes left, then watched it slip away in a devastating defeat.
The 84-80 loss may cost UNO (18-10, 12-3) a share of the conference title and the No. 1 seed in the upcoming league tournament. In order to move past first-place South Dakota State (23-7, 13-2), the Mavs need to win at Denver (8-21, 3-12) Saturday and have the Jackrabbits lose to Western Illinois.
“If we just do two things right, defensively, in the last three minutes, we probably win the game,” UNO coach Derrin Hansen said. “But we don’t. And we don’t get a shot to go there late, either. It was a disappointing locker room, to say the least. But we’ve got to regroup. There’s no getting around it.”
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The Mavs practiced at a local high school in Tulsa on Friday morning then hopped on a plane to Denver. They will meet the last-place Pioneers on Saturday afternoon in the final game of the regular season.
It may essentially be a play-in game for Denver. If South Dakota State holds serve at home against Western Illinois, the Pioneers could replace the Leathernecks as the No. 8 seed in the Summit tournament with a victory.
UNO, meanwhile, can finish no worse than second in the final conference standings, even with a loss.
“The only thing that has changed is now Denver is playing for something and we’re a lock,” Hansen said. “We have to put that aside, come out and compete like we’re playing for something because we want to have momentum going into the tournament. We will anyway, but we still want to go out and play well.”
The Pioneers have been an enigma this season. Coach Rodney Billups appeared to have upper-half talent heading into the league schedule, then went through losing streaks of five and seven games.
Denver, which has overhauled its lineup by inserting four freshmen with senior star Joe Rosga, clobbered Western Illinois by 28 points on Thursday to give itself a chance to make the tournament. Rookie David Nzekwesi — the younger brother of Oral Roberts forward Emmanuel, who scored 53 points in the two games against the Mavs this season — paced the Pioneers with 20 points and seven rebounds in the win.
UNO beat Denver 91-84 in Omaha in its conference opener in December. A lot has changed since.
“They’re starting four freshmen and Rosga, then bringing veteran guys off the bench,” Hansen said. “Are they running a few different things? Yeah, a little bit. Do they have some different lineups? Yes, but those guys are still playing, just at different times of the game. We have to be ready for all of them.”