UNO’s Matt Pile untucked his No. 40 jersey and stepped off the Baxter Arena court for the final time Saturday, picking up his face mask off the sideline floor on his way to the tunnel.
The pandemic spoiled the traditional scene for a senior sendoff — and injuries, hard luck and second-half skids have defined a dismal showing in Summit League play thus far for UNO, which lost 81-69 to North Dakota Saturday.
Even Pile, the 6-foot-8 workhorse and ironman, wasn’t able to escape the Mavs’ malaise this week.
He sprained his ankle in practice Thursday and then spent portions of Saturday’s game clutching his hip as he limbered up and down the court. He still scored 16 points, and had his mind fixated on the positives afterward.
“It was definitely good to get one win under our belt,” Pile said Saturday night, referencing Friday’s 72-62 victory over this same North Dakota team. “I know we want a sweep but I think (Friday) will help get guys relaxed, and get that monkey off our shoulders.”
They’re set to battle with Denver (2-17, 1-11) next weekend for the final berth to the eight-team Summit League tournament. The Mavs (3-19, 1-11) have to win twice to guarantee a trip to Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
But at least they control their own fate.
That was the message after the game Saturday from coach Derrin Hansen, who’s been complimentary of his guys’ perseverance during this challenging year.
They went two months between wins. They’ve dealt with a COVID-19 pause. They’re down to six available scholarship guys — that number dipped to five for a stretch Saturday when guard Marco Smith took a shot to the face and left the court bleeding with about six minutes left before halftime.
Looking back, senior Ayo Akinwole said he could sense the game's momentum start to flip right then, even though North Dakota didn’t seize full control until after halftime.
The Fighting Hawks (9-16, 8-8) scored on 14 of their first 17 possessions of the second half, turning a six-point deficit into a 68-56 lead.
They worked the glass for some easy putbacks. They buried a couple long range jumpers. Their big men created mismatches and made a few easy ones in the post.
“Once things started bad, we just let it go bad,” Akinwole said. “We didn’t fight back.”
Another lesson learned the hard way.
There have been more than a few of those this year.
It's the type of misfortune that just might motivate Akinwole to return for one more season — the Papillion-La Vista product is graduating but all Division I players are set to receive an additional year of eligibility and he hasn’t yet ruled out a return to UNO.
Pile, however, is moving on.
The two-time Academic All-American has already been accepted into medical school. He’ll finish his career as a 1,000-point scorer who’s third all-time in rebounds and fourth in blocks. He's started the last 92 games for UNO and logged more than 3,000 minutes.
And there is still a chance at a storybook ending.
That remains Pile’s focus, to help get his team ready for next weekend’s games and see what it can accomplish from there.
But eventually the finality of Saturday will hit him. He’ll miss bulling his way to buckets at Baxter.
“It’s been a good run,” Pile said. “(Baxter) has definitely been good to us. I know we can’t have as many fans as we’d like, so we might not have the same energy we’d had. But it’s been a fun run.”