Justin Simmons told himself to just flush the first half.
“Twenty minutes gone,” the UNO junior said. “Everybody was talking to me in the locker room because they know … I’m Justin Simmons. I’m averaging 15 points.
“‘It’s OK that you’ve only got one point right now. Flush it out, come out, play your hardest and stay aggressive.’ That’s what I did.”
So Simmons simply scored 22 second-half points, including 18 in the final 9:01, as the Mavericks overcame a nine-point deficit, took a 10-point lead, saw the lead shrink to three, then held on to beat Indiana-Purdue-Fort Wayne 86-79 Thursday night.
Of course, he had plenty of help as UNO (8-16, 5-6 Summit League) continued its surprising second half of the season with its third straight league win before 1,088 at Ralston Arena. The Mavs are in fifth place in the Summit with a chance to tie Oakland for fourth when the Golden Grizzlies come to town Saturday.
Freshman Marcus Tyus scored 16 of his career-high 22 points in the first half and helped slow down high-scoring Mastodon senior Frank Gaines (who scored 32) with his defense in the frantic final minutes.
John Karhoff scored 12 points while making 6 of 8 from the field against a Mastodon team that played without an ill Mario Hines, a 6-foot-8 senior who is third on the team in scoring (8.8 points) and is its leading rebounder (5.5).
Alex Phillips, at 6-3, muscled his way inside against IPFW’s smaller guards and added 11 points. Point guard CJ Carter had seven points, a career-best eight rebounds and six assists.
Oh, and UNO shot a staggering 78.3 percent (18 of 23) from the field in the second half, making 15 of its first 16 to take a 75-65 lead with 6:34 left. The Mavs finished a season-best 62.7 percent from the field.
“Have to give Omaha a ton of credit for the way the played on the offensive end in the second half,” IPFW coach Tony Jasick said. “That was impressive on the stat sheet, and it was disappointing to watch.”
IPFW (10-14, 3-7) still climbed back into it.
But, with the Mavs clinging to an 80-76 lead, the 6-3 Simmons channeled his inner George Gervin, drove the lane and flipped in a finger roll from about five feet out — reaching under the outstretched arm of 6-7 Michael Kibiloski.
The lead was six points with 59 seconds left.
“It’s been dropping the last few games,” Simmons said, laughing. “As long as it’s going in … it’s not like I’m forcing it. It seems like it’s there, so I flip it up and it goes in.
“It was around the time that something needed to happen. And that’s what happened.”
A Luis Jacobo 3-pointer cut the lead in half with 50 seconds left, and the Mastodons got the ball back after a rushed missed 3 by Alex Welhouse with the shot clock winding down. But Isaiah McCray missed a wild reverse layup in transition and Simmons got the rebound with seven seconds left.
He made four free throws — two because of a technical foul on Joe Edwards after he continued trying to wrest the ball free after the whistle — to clinch the game and finish off an amazing offensive performance.
“Incredible wasn’t it?” Jasick said. “… It’s a situation where if a good player gets confidence, the next thing that happens is balls are flying all over the place — like the running whoop-de-whoop (aka, the finger roll).”
Not only did Simmons have just one first-half point, he also had six turnovers, mostly trying to create things that weren’t there in traffic. He missed all three of his field goal attempts, including a couple of forced jump shots.
But Simmons, who is averaging 20.7 points over his last 12 games, turned it around.
“Some guys are given more rope than others, fair or unfair,” UNO coach Derrin Hansen said. “Because we know he can get it going. … You have to be mature enough to play through it, and he was.”
Gaines had 19 points and seven rebounds in the first half, and his layup stretched the lead to 45-36 early in the second half.
But Karhoff found Simmons in the lane for a layup and Carter followed with a steal and dunk to make it 45-40. Welhouse scored on a leaner in the lane, and then Karhoff drew a charge on Gaines — his third foul — with 18:05 left. Jasick saved Gaines for the next five minutes, bringing him back after UNO had taken a 53-50 lead.
“We lost a little bit of our rhythm on the offensive end, but that said, he’s going to have to come out anyway,” Jasick said. “He’s not going to play the whole game. You’ve still got to be able to guard, with or without him in the game.”
Simmons didn’t score again until making two free throws with 13:25 left, but he followed a pull-up jumper in transition with 9:01 left with back-to-back 3s and couldn’t be stopped.
“Omaha got right to the rim, it felt like every single possession,” Jasick said. “And then we went zone, our (half-court) press and zone, and gave up two 3s to (Simmons) … bang, bang.”
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