Alex Phillips’ role on the UNO basketball team continues to evolve.
When he joined the program as a junior college transfer last year, he was the perfect high-energy supersub to bring off the bench. Before long, he was called upon for even more minutes as a starter — frequently playing as an undersized power forward and using his strength at just 6-foot-3.
This year, he was briefly the odd-man out on an improved roster that includes high-impact depth both inside and out. And now, Phillips is showing his wares as a lights-out, long-range shooter.
“A.P. is always ready,” teammate Mike Rostampour said. “He’s the J.R. Smith of the team, ready to pull the trigger and hit five 3s in a row.”
Phillips, a senior from Smiths Station, Ala., hit all three of his first-half 3-pointers and 4 of 6 overall in a Dec. 14 win at Nevada. And he came back in his next game, Friday’s near upset at Minnesota, to make 4 of 5 first-half 3s.
Over the last four games, he’s connected on 75 percent (12 of 16) from long range to push his total for the season to 52.8 percent (19 of 36).
He’ll try to keep on a roll in Sunday’s nonconference matchup with Seattle (8-3), a postseason contender from the Western Athletic Conference that has won five straight games and that, like UNO, has six Division I victories.
The 4:07 p.m. game at Ralston Arena figures to serve as another key test for UNO (8-4), which just had its five-game winning streak snapped and is trying to build a résumé worthy of being invited to either the CBI or CIT postseason tournaments.
“Seattle is big and long, and has a lot of great shooters,” Phillips said. “They’ll be really good. We have to get back and protect our homecourt.”
After suffering a concussion in the season opener and missing the Iowa game, Phillips played an average of just 13 minutes against UNO’s next six Division I opponents. But he’s played 25 minutes in each of the past two games.
“I wouldn’t say I was frustrated,” Phillips said. “We have more depth and my role is different than it was last year. I kind of like the role. I’m supposed to play good defense and when I get open shots, my teammates expect me to knock them down.”
UNO coach Derrin Hansen has praised Phillips’ extra work in the gym to sharpen his shooting skills.
“I think (the concussion) got him out of some rhythm, and when he got back in Marcus (Tyus) was playing well and that ate up some of his minutes,” Hansen said. “We’re not playing small as much as last year. So a lot of things led into it, but he did nothing but keep working.”
Last year, after transferring from New Mexico Junior College, Phillips averaged 8.2 points per game. Before his back-to-back outbursts the past two games, he was averaging just 5.3.
“You could tell he was mad, but that’s all right,” Rostampour said. “You should be mad when you’re not playing much. And he took care of it. No one puts on pouty faces on our team. They don’t talk about it, they take action.”
Phillips connected on a respectable 37.5 percent (21 of 56) of his 3s last year, though never making more than three in a game. He’s already two away from matching his total of made 3s from last season.
“I don’t think I shot the ball very well last year, not like I’m supposed to,” Phillips said.
Meanwhile, Seattle offers a solid perimeter game of its own led by point guard Isiah Umipig, a transfer from Cal State Fullerton who averages 18.0 and 4.6 assists while shooting 36.1 percent from 3, and Jarell Flora, who shoots 40.4 percent (23 of 57) from 3 while averaging 10.5 points.
Washington transfer Clarence Trent and reserve Deshaun Sunderhaus each average just over 10 points and five rebounds.
The Redhawks, with an RPI in the low 100s, have swept Umipig’s former team and played Trent’s former Huskies team within eight. Their other losses are at Boise State and Eastern Washington.
“We’ve got to flush (Friday’s loss) and dig in against a very good team in Seattle,” Hansen said.