The collegiate careers of UNO seniors Zach Jackson and Mitch Hahn have coincided with those of the Summit League’s two most celebrated players. Mike Daum of South Dakota State and John Konchar of Purdue Fort Wayne will leave their final season as four-time first-team all-conference honorees.
Jackson and Hahn, who have also been all-league players, have been through several battles with the two Summit stars. In fact, some of their high-scoring, down-to-the-wire thrillers with Daum’s Jackrabbits and Konchar’s Mastodons will be the moments Maverick fans remember most about them.
This week, UNO’s captains will face them both for what could be the final time. And it just so happens that those games take place on their home court with the lead in the conference title race on the line.
League-leading South Dakota State, which has a 1½-game lead in the standings, comes to Baxter Arena on Thursday for a showdown with the second-place Mavs. Third-place Fort Wayne then arrives Saturday.
The two games will go a long way in deciding UNO’s fate in the league’s title race and tournament seeding.
“With having so many guys that are seniors, they want that last chance,” Hahn said. “This is my last year. I want to get that (NCAA) tournament (berth). I think that’s what will make these next two games interesting — and then, of course, throughout the rest of the year leading into the tournament. We want to be the team that moves on, but so do they. ... I think that’ll bring some high intensity to our games.”
Both games this week will be crucial for the Mavs. A victory over SDSU would put them even with the Jackrabbits in the loss column in the race for the league title. But a win over Fort Wayne will keep UNO in the top two in the Summit, which could eventually make a difference for them at tournament time.
The first and second seeds in the Summit tourney play on the opening day of the event and, with a win, would have a day off before the semifinals. The No. 3 seed would have to play three straight days.
“You don’t want one or two games to define your season, especially if it goes the wrong direction,” UNO coach Derrin Hansen said. “But even if we play well, we still have four more to play after this regardless. No matter what happens after this weekend, we have to prepare for the following weekend.”
The UNO captains are embracing the opportunity this week will provide. The senior class in the Summit League this season is full of stars who have been longtime staples in the conference. And Jackson said matching up with the league’s other standouts has been nothing but respectful competition.
“It’s been a good run in terms of talent in our class,” he said. “We all battle it out every time we play each other. We all have respect for each other. That’s one of the nice parts about it. There’s no trash talk between us. We respect each other’s game and compete out there whenever we’re matched up.”
UNO played the Mastodons and Jackrabbits, in that order, over a three-day span last month. The Mavericks wiped out a double-digit deficit in Fort Wayne, Indiana, to notch an overtime win. Two days later, they fell at South Dakota State 83-73. Daum had an off night, from a shooting perspective, and still scored 33.
The 6-foot-9 senior from Kimball, Nebraska, has been a matchup nightmare for Summit League teams throughout his career. He’s tormented UNO, averaging more than 30 points in the past three seasons.
Daum averages 25 points and 11.6 rebounds per game and is one of only two players in the nation who get more than 20 and 10, on average, every night. He’s closing in on the 3,000-point mark in his career.
“He’s been all-conference since we’ve been in this league,” Jackson said. “We’ve got to try to make it as tough as we can against him. It’s going to be hard to shut him out of the game. He’s relentless out there, offensively. We’ve got to try to make him guard, defensively, as well to put pressure on him that way.”
But South Dakota State is much more than Daum. David Jenkins is one of the top young guards in the Summit, while Skyler Flatten is a deadly shooter from long range. They all need to be accounted for.
“We know they’re going to come in focused,” Jackson said. “They’re still trying to win the league as well. (No matter) how that game went up there (in Brookings), they’re going to come in focused regardless.”
UNO will attempt to match that focus, not only Thursday against South Dakota State, but against Fort Wayne on Saturday. Opportunities to play for the league lead late in a season aren’t a given, and the Mavs plan to be ready.
Hansen said being successful will come down to understanding the moment, then playing well in it.
His senior captains, who will be honored at Baxter at Saturday’s games, are thrilled to have the spotlight.
“I think it’s good for us to have these high-intensity games, especially back to back,” Hahn said. “It can teach us a few things about what we need to do better and help us prepare a little bit for when the tournament comes around. You know those will be high-intensity games as well.”