Winning back-to-back league road games is no easy accomplishment for anyone, let alone for a team with no postseason hopes.
Yet UNO did that last weekend by winning at South Dakota and Missouri-Kansas City, and it returns to the Ralston Arena for a 7 p.m. game Thursday against Indiana-Purdue-Fort Wayne with a chance to move up to fifth place in the Summit League.
“Coming off the (consecutive) 10 road games (in November and December), it took us awhile to get our confidence back,” UNO coach Derrin Hansen said. “We had to reinvent the wheel some after getting beat up a little bit.
“But I give our guys credit because they are playing pretty hard and practicing pretty hard, and they've gotten some wins to reward that hard work. And as a result, our confidence has gone up.”
UNO (7-16 overall, 4-6 Summit League) is preparing for a return game against a Mastodon team that earned a 96-78 victory when the teams met Jan. 5. Yet IPFW (10-13, 3-6) still sits a half-game behind UNO in the Summit standings.
Should UNO win and South Dakota (4-5 Summit) lose Thursday on the road at South Dakota State, then the Mavs would be in fifth place and one game behind fourth-place Oakland, with the chance to tie the Golden Grizzlies when they come to town on Saturday.
That, however, is looking ahead perhaps a bit too much.
First the Mavs have to handle one of the league's top players in high-scoring senior guard Frank Gaines (18.5 points per game), who had 26 points while making all 14 of his free throws against UNO.
They also have to attempt to shut down a Mastodon team that went 14 for 24 from 3-point range in the teams' first meeting.
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Forward Michael Kibiloski hit 5 of 7 from long distance while scoring 26 points and grabbing 10 rebounds. Mario Hines had 12 points and 12 rebounds. Luis Jacobo scored 16.
UNO got within 10 points with eight minutes left in the opening game and was still there with five minutes left, but couldn't get any closer.
“They really shot it well against us,” Hansen said. “They hit 9 3s (out of 11) in the first 15 minutes, just hit us hard early, and it became a little bit of quicksand for us. We didn't do a great job containing them on the dribble and they got some easy baskets in transition.
“I'm hoping we're a little better this time around.”
UNO has been better since.
UNO, which dropped to 1-5 in the Summit with the loss at IPFW, has since gone 3-2 since — and 3-1 in league games, losing only to first-place Western Illinois.
Justin Simmons, despite getting sick during a couple of timeouts, scored 24 points against IPFW — part of an 11-game streak in which the 6-foot-3 junior has averaged 20.5 points.
In Summit games, Simmons is third in the league in scoring at 18.6 points per game.
“He's kind of found himself within our system,” Hansen said. “And he's made some shots, so people have to come out on him, and that's opened up his drive a bit.”
Like Simmons, UNO has also begun finding its way. After entering the season uncertain where it might fit in the Summit, the Mavs are in the middle of the pack just past the halfway point.
But they can't play in the postseason Summit or NCAA-sponsored tournaments since they are transitioning to Division I, and won't make two other postseason fields because of their losing record.
The road isn't very easy the rest of the way, either. After Thursday, UNO has five league games remaining — with one each against the league's top four teams.
“I do like the way we're fighting,” Hansen said. “I wanted us to be more competitive on the road, and we've seen now that we can do that. … I just want us to be able to get as much as we can get.”
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» NOTES: UNO's homecourt BracketBuster game is Feb. 23, and the process of matching up opponents has just begun. Lower-end RPI teams such as the Mavs (up to No. 294 according to RPI.com) are matched up against teams with similar RPIs, typically from a nearby region. Here are several possibilities, based on RPI and regional proximity: Southern Illinois-Edwardsville (No. 276), Northern Illinois (281), North Dakota (284), Central Arkansas (287), Eastern Illinois (295), Chicago State (297), Wisconsin-Milwaukee (312) and Northern Colorado (317). All are within a 10-hour drive from Omaha. UNO has already played Northern Illinois and Chicago State, and plays Chicago State again four days before the BracketBuster.