None of the thrilling come-from-behind victories this year will measure up to Wednesday’s effort.
Buoyed by a brilliant all-around performance from guard Tra-Deon Hollins, UNO knocked off Summit League leader South Dakota State — a team with a top-50 RPI — in a 96-92 barnburner at Baxter Arena.
The Mavericks (16-10), who dropped to third in the conference standings following a pair of losses last week, jumped back into the league’s championship picture in what was nearly a must-win situation.
“As of right now, this is the absolute biggest win,” UNO senior forward Jake White said. “We really needed this one. And now Omaha is again in the conversation.”
The Mavs, now 8-4 in the Summit, trailed by 10 in the first half and led by nine in the second before their game with the Jackrabbits (19-6, 8-3) was decided in the final minute. The Mavs are now a half-game out of the league lead with four games to play. Co-leaders South Dakota State and IPFW still have five.
Tre’Shawn Thurman’s follow-up basket with 32 seconds remaining put UNO up for good at 94-92. Hollins then ended a night in which he flirted with a triple-double — 28 points, nine rebounds and eight assists — by swatting Jackrabbit guard George Marshall’s potential game-tying shot on the ensuing possession.
Thurman added a free throw after the teams traded turnovers, then iced the game with another following an off-balance miss from long range by Jake Bittle that would’ve pulled SDSU even late.
“It wasn’t pretty at times, and it sure wasn’t perfect,” UNO coach Derrin Hansen said. “But I was very proud of our basketball team — the guys that started the game, the guys that came in, our bench. We went toe-to-toe with a really, really good basketball team tonight. And I didn’t think we gave in.”
There were plenty of opportunities to give in. The Jackrabbits were scorching the net from distance early on, burying 7 of their first 11 shots from beyond the arc. Reed Tellinghuisen, who averages 8.8 points per game, canned five of his seven 3-pointers before the intermission as SDSU drilled 9 of 16 from deep.
Deondre Parks hit the last of them before the first-half buzzer to put his team up 46-40 at the break.
The Mavs, meanwhile, managed to stay in it thanks to a big first half from Hollins. He had nearly half of his team’s points (17) while hitting 5 of 7 shots in a period in which UNO shot 61 percent from the floor.
South Dakota State coach Scott Nagy said his team lost the game then, even though it was ahead.
“They’re good,” he said. “They have very good offensive players, so I think you have to give them some credit. When you let good offensive players get going, it’s nearly impossible to stop them. The second half was not the problem for us. It was the first half. They shot 60 percent. That’s why they scored 56 points in the second half. They scored 56 points, and we lost by four. It’s a joke. It’s an absolute joke.”
With 12 minutes remaining, the Jackrabbits were still in front as UNO’s top three scorers — Devin Patterson, White and Thurman — were on the bench with three fouls each. White re-entered a short time later and drained back-to-back 3s off kick-out passes by Hollins as the Mavs surged ahead by seven.
South Dakota State rallied, however, at the free-throw line, eventually pulling even at 84-all on a conventional three-point play by Mike Daum with 4:34 left. The redshirt freshman from Kimball, Nebraska, hit 6 of his 7 field-goal attempts, including 4 for 4 from 3, in a 20-point effort off the bench.
Daum’s final triple with 3:54 remaining gave the Jackrabbits their last advantage at 87-85.
Hollins tied it soon after, then fed Thurman for a 3 to put the Mavs in front. South Dakota State knotted it for the last time at 92-all on a Marshall 3, the school-record 15th of the night for the visitors.
Thurman tipped in a Hollins miss on the following possession. He finished with 19 points to join Hollins, White and Patterson in double figures. The Jackrabbits also had four, led by Tellinghuisen’s 21 points.
In the Summit League standings, UNO’s victory didn’t make up for last week’s two losses to Western Illinois and Denver. But it did get the Mavs within striking distance of the co-leaders, although they’ll still need a little help from others to catch the teams in front of them by season’s end.
“It’s all not all the way in our hands still, but it’s closer,” Hansen said. “There’s some room for error there. If we’d have lost tonight, then there was no room for error. We lost some things last week, but we gained one back tonight — and a big one because they haven’t lost very many.”