They’ll be talking about this Thursday night at Baxter Arena for a long, long time.
The pregame hype. The record crowd. The incredible comeback. The game-winning shot.
Not often do big-time games exceed their lofty expectations. This one did for UNO.
Down by 16 points early in the second half, the Mavericks rallied to stun league-leading South Dakota State 85-84 in a Summit League barnburner that featured 13 lead changes over the final 14 minutes.
UNO captain Mitch Hahn dribbled the length of the court in the final 5.7 seconds to drain a fadeaway jumper from the right baseline over the outstretched arm of defender Alex Arians just before the horn.
The senior forward from Fremont, hampered all of last season with a shoulder injury, took a backward hop as the shot fell through, turned to the Maverick bench and then was mobbed by his teammates.
Hahn, who hit a long 3-pointer to beat North Dakota earlier this season and another to force overtime in South Dakota last week, opened the postgame press conference by thanking God for his opportunity.
Co-captain and fellow senior Zach Jackson then upstaged Thursday’s hero with a stone-faced follow-up.
“Thank you, God, for letting me play with Mitch Hahn,” he said. “He’s just comes through big for us.”
Hahn paced the Mavs with 22 points, but KJ Robinson, Matt Pile and Jackson each finished with 17. UNO needed every one of them in a collective effort to get past a Jackrabbit team that had won nine straight.
The victory pulled the Mavs (15-9) within a half-game of the conference lead at 9-2. South Dakota State (20-7), which has played one more Summit game than UNO to this point, slipped to 10-2 in league play.
Two-time Summit League player of the year Mike Daum, one of the most prolific scorers in NCAA history, recorded 20 of his 29 points in the first half as SDSU built its advantage. And sophomore David Jenkins, the heir apparent to Daum’s throne, canned a school-record 10 3s while racking up 34 points.
Jenkins connected twice from long range early in the second half as the lead stretched to 16. UNO came roaring back by with an 18-0 run that wiped out the deficit in less than five minutes. Jackson had seven points during the outburst that brought the Maverick fans among the record 4,228 in attendance to life.
“I’ve never played in front of a crowd like that at Baxter,” Jackson said. “The crowd was great tonight. They all helped us make that run in the second half and get that win.”
Ayo Akinwole’s 3-pointer capped the 18-point surge and gave UNO its first lead of the night. Jenkins retaliated with back-to-back triples only to be countered quickly by a Hahn shot and a Jackson bucket.
The teams traded blows the rest of the way, with the Jackrabbits coming from behind by six to regain the lead. SDSU was down one when Daum was fouled with 5.7 seconds left. He sank both ends of a one-and-one.
UNO used the ensuing timeout to design the final play. There was no questioning who got the ball.
“We switched some guys around a little bit to hopefully get them on the run,” UNO coach Derrin Hansen said. “If it wasn’t him, we were going to have Plan B coming off it if they would’ve jumped it. We had a couple of things going there, but (Hahn) got it. So when that happened, he could get up the right side.”
Hansen said he thought Hahn would pull up from the wing. The senior forward admitted he considered that, but recalled a similar shot missed by former teammate Tra-Deon Hollins against the Jackrabbits at the final horn in the Summit League tournament championship game in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, two years ago.
“I was thinking, ‘We can’t do the same thing twice,’” he said. “We at least have to try to get to the rim. But Arians did a good job of cutting me off. The only thing that he gave me was the shot I had to take.”
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The game-winner allowed UNO to beat the Jackrabbits on a night in which they hit 17 3-pointers on the road. South Dakota State left Baxter disappointed, but still holding a slim lead in the league standings.
“Obviously, you’re not thrilled with the outcome tonight, but we’re very process-driven,” SDSU coach TJ Otzelberger said. “When another team steps up like they did tonight and beats us, then that’s going to happen. I think we’re in great position. We need to turn our focus very quickly to North Dakota State.”
UNO, meanwhile, turns its attention to third-place Purdue Fort Wayne, which comes to Baxter on Saturday.
The Mavs are tied with SDSU in the loss column with one more league game remaining on their schedule than what the Jackrabbits have. Jackson said his team needs to turn the page quickly to keep that spot.
“If you’re still trying to win a championship, you have to win every game,” the senior guard said. “We know we can’t lose another game. We’re tied for first (in the loss column). We know (South Dakota State is) going to take care of business so we know we have to come into every game ready to play.”