SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — The Summit League’s postseason honorees are prominently displayed on a big board at the Sanford Premier Center to recognize the conference’s standouts during the annual tournament.
UNO will be well represented there this year. Derrin Hansen was named the Summit’s coach of the year Thursday while senior co-captains Zach Jackson and Mitch Hahn grabbed first-team all-league honors.
The awards were well-deserved. The trio led the Mavericks (19-10, 13-3), picked eighth in the league in the preseason, to a UNO Division I record 19 victories and a best-ever second-place finish in the Summit.
But the honors, although welcomed, are secondary right now. The Mavs are focused solely on their pursuit of a conference tournament championship and the automatic NCAA berth that comes with it.
“I wouldn’t even say that I’m looking forward to seeing those type of things because I know, as a team, our goal is to win those three games,” Hahn said. “Whatever they put on the board, when we’re walking in the hotel, it won’t matter because we still have to lace them up Saturday just like everyone else does.”
Second-seeded UNO begins its title quest by taking on league newcomer North Dakota (12-17, 6-10) in the quarterfinal round on Saturday at 8:30 p.m. A win would advance the Mavs to Monday’s semifinals.
This is the first time UNO has been in the tourney as a top-two seed. The benefit of that is having Sunday off following a Saturday night victory while Monday’s opponent will be coming off a Sunday night game.
“Getting that extra day off is always an advantage to have,” Jackson said. “We’ve put ourselves in this position — (of) being a top-two seed. We haven’t been that in the tournament in the past four years.”
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The day off could be crucial to a Maverick team that has been relying on heavy minutes from its starters down the stretch. During league play, all five averaged more than 28 minutes of playing time per game.
UNO boasts the most balanced lineup in the league heading into the tournament. All five starters are double-digit scorers, on average. Sixth-seeded South Dakota is the only other Summit team to have four.
The Mavs went 6-0 during the regular season against the teams on their side of the bracket (UND, USD and Purdue Fort Wayne), but it wasn’t done easily. Five of those games were decided by seven points or less.
UNO got to a school-record 13 conference wins by focusing on one game at a time. The Mavs vow to take that same approach to the tournament, where a single loss will end a team’s season.
“Don’t let three games get in the way of winning one game. You don’t get game two without game one,” Hansen said. “All of our focus right now is on North Dakota. That’s going to be a big enough task as it is.”
UNO handled the Fighting Hawks 90-72 in their most recent meeting in Omaha, but only after nearly squandering a 20-point lead in the second half. That was a North Dakota team playing without senior Conner Avants, a 6-foot-7 post who led the Summit League in field-goal percentage this season at 60.6 percent.
Avants scored 24 points on the Mavs in the first meeting, but missed the second of two free throws with less than a second remaining. UNO won that game in Grand Forks, North Dakota, 92-91 on a Hahn 3-pointer in the closing seconds. The Mavs rallied from 14 points down and led for all of one minute, 46 seconds.
UNO center Matt Pile said the Fighting Hawks weren’t really themselves in Omaha with Avants injured.
“That first game they were really gunning for us so we have to be ready for that again,” he said. “They have all their guys back now. Avants is a great player. I didn’t know him at all so I wasn’t ready for that. Now that I’ve seen him once and I’ve watched some film, I’ll be ready when he goes at me on Saturday.”
At full strength, North Dakota is a threat. The Fighting Hawks won three straight games, including one over an Oral Roberts team that beat UNO twice, before losing their regular-season finale at South Dakota.
Jackson said the Mavs will be wary of North Dakota come Saturday. What has happened before is irrelevant.
“Nothing in the regular season really matters at that point,” he said. “The regular season really has no meaning at all once you get in the tournament. You’ve just got to try to win that game.”