UNO's new basketball venue went from house to home in the course of an evening.
Tentative at first in the new Ralston Arena, the Mavericks finished strong in a 77-64 victory against Northern Illinois in front of a Friday night crowd of 2,224.
“It did take awhile to feel like it was our place,” University of Nebraska at Omaha center John Karhoff said. “But halfway through the first half, we could hear the crowd start to get into it. We really got comfortable as the game went on.”
Point guard CJ Carter kept the Mavs feeling good by doing all he could to keep Northern Illinois in misery. The sophomore from Omaha Benson had 16 points, five assists and three steals, and he made a number of eye-popping plays in transition that kept momentum on the Mavs' side and got the fans fired up.
“I think he kind of sniffed out that we had some young point guards,” Northern Illinois coach Mark Montgomery said. “So like any veteran would do, he went after them. ... He definitely disrupted things at the top.”
UNO earned its second Division I win and its first Division I home victory since moving to college basketball's highest level last season. The Mavs beat Northern Illinois on the road last season.
Sixth man Alex Phillips broke the ice for UNO, coming off the bench for three straight baskets, including two 3-pointers, for a 16-7 lead. But Northern Illinois took a 21-19 lead before Carter went to work.
He and Justin Simmons both dove and had near-steals on one sequence, creating a scramble that allowed teammate Caleb Steffensmeier to deflect a pass near halfcourt, track it down in the corner, and then save it from going out of bounds by flipping it over his head to Carter. Carter finished that play with a double-pump layup while drawing a foul, and his free throw gave UNO a 24-21 lead.
Carter's nifty no-look dish to Karhoff in transition led to a layup that gave the Mavs a 28-25 lead.
Then Carter played give-and-go with Simmons in transition, flipping up an alley-oop to Simmons that made it 33-30.
The Huskies got within one, 48-47, in the second half, but UNO responded with a 9-1 run and led by at least seven the rest of the way.
“We knew a run was going to come,” Carter said. “So we just stayed patient. Just lock down on defense and get rebounds, and that's what we did.”
Alex Welhouse scored 13, while Karhoff and Simmons each added 12 for UNO.
Northern Illinois played without its top player, Abdel Nader, whose suspension for an unspecified number of games for a violation of team rules was announced earlier Friday. The 6-foot-7 wing is a preseason MAC all-division selection after making the league's all-freshman team last year.
“We brought 13 guys down here on the same page,” Montgomery said. “Nader didn't play in the scrimmage or the exhibition game, and we fared well. We had more than enough — if we'd taken care of the ball and made some more free throws.”
Northern Illinois had 24 turnovers and made 17 of 30 free throws. The Huskies stayed close on the strength of 12 offensive rebounds.
There were 50 fouls in a game that appeared to be called exceedingly closely. The Mavs got through the second half despite foul trouble for starting forwards Koang Doluony and Welhouse, as well as Phillips — who fouled out in 12 minutes of work.
When Phillips picked up his fourth foul with 12:06 left, UNO coach Derrin Hansen called on freshman guard Marcus Tyus — a redshirt candidate who instead promptly scored seven points.
“We decided this afternoon that he was going to play at some point tonight,” Hansen said. “Then the fouls starting racking up and there he was.”
Welhouse, Karhoff and Carter combined for 29 of UNO's 44 second-half points.
“It's been a long time coming since we announced we were going to be playing here,” Hansen said. “It was nice that we've been able to get over and practice here some, and I think they could feel as the game wore on tonight that it was their floor. I don't think they felt that early.”
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