Derrin Hansen got to the end of his Thursday night press conference and reflected on his team’s unlikely late-season hot streak.
The University of Nebraska at Omaha had just beaten Indiana-Purdue-Fort Wayne for its third straight Summit League victory. The Mavericks, naturally picked last in their first year in the league and their second season in Division I, found themselves a game behind fourth-place Oakland.
“You want to feel great about it, but you wind up feeling more relieved and then you start watching film 10 minutes (after the press conference) and getting ready for the next one,” Hansen said. “But it’s better than the alternative.”
The focus of that late night scouting report is Oakland — considered by most the dominant program in the Summit for the past decade.
The Golden Grizzlies tilt regularly with power conference behemoths — and though they didn’t knock any off this season, they blew a big lead and lost in overtime to Pittsburgh and hung close with Michigan State until the final minutes.
They have arguably the best shooter in the country in 6-foot-5 junior Travis Bader, who leads the nation with 99 3-pointers — including 11 in a 47-point outburst Jan. 24 against IUPUI.
They’ve got a skilled post player in 6-10 sophomore Corey Petros, who averages 12.7 points and 8.5 rebounds — and averages a Summit-best 10.3 rebounds in league games. And guard Duke Mondy is a Providence transfer who leads the country with 72 steals and is the Summit’s in-league leader with averages of 6.3 assists and 3.8 steals.
It’s a tall order for the Mavs, but it doesn’t look quite as impossible as it might have a month ago, when they started Summit League play at 1-5, including a 91-79 loss at Oakland.
Since then, they are 4-1 in the Summit.
“Even though we’re new, we didn’t want to finish last in this conference,” said junior guard Justin Simmons, who is averaging 20.7 points in his last 12 games and 15.8 overall. “We wanted to make a name for ourselves, and it starts now. I feel like the whole team is feeling the same way. We’re starting to click.”
UNO, which made 15 of its first 16 second-half shots against IPFW and shot 78.3 percent in the final 20 minutes to finish at a season-best 62.7, has shot 50.0 percent or better from the field in six of eight games. During the stretch, the Mavs have shot 53.5 percent while going 5-3.
“We try to get it from side to side, inside and outside, and when we do that, we’re not bad,” Hansen said.
Only Bader (25.0), South Dakota State’s Nate Wolters (21.2) and IPFW’s Frank Gaines (19.2) are scoring more in Summit games than Simmons.
Only North Dakota State (52.0) shoots better from the field as a team than does UNO (49.8) in league games.
“We started off slow at the beginning of the conference season, and now we’re starting to pick it up and get it going,” freshman guard Marcus Tyus said. “We’ve just got to play hard and work hard every game.”
The Mavs have five league games left, with four against teams above them in the Summit standings. Still, last place seems an unlikely destination.
“We knew we were better than that,” Tyus said.
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