When UNO toppled conference-leading South Dakota State on Wednesday to claim its biggest victory to date in its short Summit League history, it did so with three players from Omaha in its starting lineup.
Millard South graduate Kyler Erickson joined former Omaha Central stars Tre’Shawn Thurman and Tra-Deon Hollins on the floor for the opening tip against the Jackrabbits, making the first start of his career.
The school that markets itself as “Omaha’s team” was well represented as such when the game began.
“It doesn’t always work, but I want to start here,” UNO coach Derrin Hansen said. “There’s only (so many) scholarships and so many guys per year you lose, and I understand that. But we want to have Omaha guys here. ... If you can start with those three guys and what they bring us, on and off the floor, very proud of them, very happy for them. And those are guys we want representing our program.”
They represented their hometown well on Wednesday. Hollins and Erickson played 38 and 36 minutes, respectively, in the 96-92 victory, with Hollins scoring a career-high 28 points while flirting with a triple-double (nine rebounds, eight assists). Thurman, meanwhile, went 8 for 9 from the field in a 19-point effort that he capped by scoring the decisive four points in the closing seconds to net the Mavs the win.
Erickson’s elevation to a starting role evolved from an event that happened during practice the week before, Hansen explained. Reserve forward Randy Reed took a blow to the head and missed a game with a concussion. Former starter Zach Jackson, a 6-foot-5 guard, was pulled from the lineup to fill Reed’s role with guard Tim Smallwood starting against Denver. Hansen then switched it up Wednesday, electing to open the game with Erickson on the court while returning Smallwood to his previous role.
“Zach was good for us off the bench so I kept him off the bench,” he said. “Tim’s been good for us off the bench, and I wanted maybe a little bit of a defensive spark so I went with Kyler. How that will play out and move forward, I guess I don’t know all that. But it evolved with Randy’s injury a week ago Monday.”
Wednesday’s game was UNO’s first since Nov. 23, 2012, in which three Omaha natives were in the lineup. CJ Carter, Koang Doluony and John Karhoff were starters against Bethune-Cookman that day.
With Erickson, Hollins and Devin Patterson, the Mavs essentially have three point guards who now start.
UNO (16-10, 8-4 Summit) put itself back in the league championship hunt with Wednesday’s win. It sits a half-game behind league leaders IPFW and South Dakota State heading into Saturday’s showdown with North Dakota State (16-9, 6-5). The Bison lost at South Dakota on Thursday and have played their last two games without leading scorer Paul Miller, who suffered a knee injury against Oral Roberts on Feb. 4.
Hansen, who gave his team Thursday off, said a key factor for his team will be how it responds after Wednesday’s big win. North Dakota State, which the Mavs beat earlier this season, is no pushover.
“We weren’t mature enough to handle the two games last week, but we bounced back,” Hansen said “But, now, are we mature enough when you win one? Can you turn around and get another one?”
Hollins said the Mavs didn’t lose their focus after recent losses to Western Illinois and Denver knocked them out of the league lead. Setting itself up for the Summit tourney, he said, was UNO’s top priority.
“We’ve got four games left,” he said. “We’ve got to take it one game at a time. Hopefully, we can do a good job of helping ourselves in March and getting a good seed.”
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