Maverick Maniac's Musings

March 19, 2008

Maverick Men’s Basketball Season Comes to an End: A Season to Remember

Filed under: College Sports,Omaha Mavericks — Jon Green @ 12:07 am

This article was originally written for the UNO Gateway, the student newspaper. While much too large for their print edition, it was put on their website. See this link. Scott Stewart did a great job editing it up for me.

The 2007-08 men’s basketball season did not bring many expectations for UNO. Picked to finish last in the North Central Conference in a media poll, the Mavericks came in to the season with little attention.

Few could fault the media for their lack of belief in the Mavericks. They had suffered through a 15-16 and a 12-16 season since Kevin McKenna had left for Creighton. The Mavericks had gone a combined 7-17 in the NCC the last two years.

Students on campus, if they ever knew UNO had a basketball team, were more interested in the undefeated football team, or the hockey team whose season had just started.

However, over the off-season Head Coach Derrin Hansen had changed things up at UNO.

He’d installed a new offense. He’d added several players, including brothers Mitch Albers and Tyler Albers, while starters Andrew Bridger and Michael Jenkins had healed up after injuries the year before. He had two seniors, Denny Johnston and Jerry Bennett, ready to lead the team.

Still, as the calendar turned to November, there were still more questions than answers.

As the season began, UNO faced more injuries. A possible scrimmage to show off the team’s new weapons to fans, and build some excitement, was scrapped.

The Mavs started the season with a trip up to the St. Cloud State Tournament for two games. UNO won both games, to start 2-0 for the first time in three years. But the two teams they defeated had both had bad years in 2006-07.

Next up two game at home in the UNO Thanksgiving Classic, where UNO again won twice, including a 57 point win in the second game, to go to 4-0 for the first time in four years. But, again, over teams who had losing seasons in the previous year.

UNO then went on the road and beat 4-0 Missouri Western, a future Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association rival. That win set up a game with 5-0 Northwest Missouri State, a Top 5 team, and a chance to prove they were for real.

The Mavericks won that game 80-66, and people began to take notice. The Mavericks then came home and knocked off another Top 10 team, No. 7 Emporia State.

There were few questions now; this UNO team was for real.

UNO came into its first NCC game, a home game with Augustana, at 12-1. They fought an epic battle with Augustana, emerging the victor in a 98-97 2 overtime thriller.

They capped their non-conference season with two more wins, going to 15-1 before hitting the conference on the road.

Unfortunately, Jan. 19 wasn’t a good day for the Mavericks, as they suffered a 73-56 loss at Minnesota Duluth, a team 7-11 at the time.

They lost their next two road games – while staying hot at home winning the next two home games – moving the Mavericks to 3-3 in conference going into a game at home against South Dakota.

The Coyotes were another Top 5 opponent for UNO and a chance to prove they were a contender for the NCC title. UNO again stepped up to the challenge and beat South Dakota 75-60, in a game that was never closer than 7 points in the second half.

The Mavericks were for real, and had a shot at the conference title.

UNO took care of business in their next road game at St. Cloud State, setting up a huge game with Minnesota State, Mankato, on the Feb. 16. Mankato led the conference, and a win here would put UNO in the driver’s seat for a conference title.

The Mavericks were down 1 point at halftime, and lead 59-58 with 13:40 to go. Things turned south for UNO, though.

Both Jenkins and Bridger fouled out, and a technical was called on the Mavs. UNO ended up losing 94-82, a loss that ended the team’s dream of winning the regular season title.

The Mavericks finished the regular season winning at North Dakota, beating Duluth at home and losing a heartbreaker to Mankato at home in the final game of the regular season.

The loss knocked the Mavericks from the No. 2 seed in the conference tournament, to the No. 4 seed. They now had to beat St. Cloud State in the first round to set up a rematch with Mankato in the semifinals.

UNO hosted St. Cloud State in what would be the final NCC game in the Sapp Fieldhouse. UNO, ranked No. 6 in the region at the time, appeared to be a good bet to make the NCAA North Central Regional Tournament, even with a loss to St. Cloud, but didn’t want to leave any questions.

However, the Mavs started very slow, trailing by as many as 16 points in the first half, and trailed by 14 points at halftime. UNO started quicker in the second half, cutting the lead to 5 after a 13-4 run to open up the half.

UNO took its first lead of the second half with 11:28 to go. The lead went back and forth between the two teams until Bridger hit Johnston with a beautiful pass and Johnston finished with a lay up, giving UNO an 83-82 lead.

The Mavericks held on to win 84-82 and moved on to a rematch with Mankato.

UNO’s third bout with Mankato initially looked to be going the same way as their first two: Mankato led by 13 points late in the first half, but UNO cut it to 5 points at the half.

They came out on fire to start the second half, and tied the game 3 minutes in on a Denny Johnston 3 pointer. Mankato stayed with UNO for a few minutes.

But, when UNO took the lead again on a Bennett jumper with 11:55 to go, the Mavs didn’t look back and raced to a 16 point win and a berth in the NCC championship against North Dakota.

The Fighting Sioux were the No. 6 seed into the tournament and had shocked South Dakota and Augustana to get within one game of the NCAA Tournament. UNO would have a fight on their hands to claim the final NCC Tourney title.

The final NCC game of all time would be played in snowy Mankato, Minn. The Mavericks would be the home team and the Sioux the road team.

But, with only 128 fans in attendance, no one would really know.

Think about that for a moment: The NCC, one of the greatest conferences in Division II history, played its final game in front of 128 fans.

UNO had a great first half and lead the game 35-24. The few Mavericks fans there thought it might be all over and this team would coast to the tourney title. The Mavs lead by 14 points just 5 minutes into the second half.

But North Dakota was not going to go without a fight.

The Sioux went on an 18-2 run to take a 2-point lead. However, that lead would be short lived.

An Albers jumper tied it, and an Albers lay up put the Mavs up for good. North Dakota made it close, getting within 1 point with just under 3 minutes to go, but never took the lead as UNO hit their free throws down the stretch to win 75-68.

The Mavericks: NCC tourney champs for life!

UNO earned the No. 5 seed in the North Central Regional, earning a first round game with No. 4 seed Fort Lewis. The winner would then take on No. 1 seed, and host, Winona State in the second round.

The contest against Fort Lewis was the last game of the day, and it felt late when it finally got underway.

UNO took the lead early on and started to pull away, leading by 9 points in the first half. They lead until there were only 10 minutes left, when Fort Lewis took at 52-50 lead.

Fort Lewis then got up 63-57 with 6 minutes to go, and it looked like maybe this was where the road would end for the Mavericks.

Albers tried to get UNO going with a drive to the hoop, but was called for a charge. Then Bennett checked back in. Bridger got fouled and went to the line. Bridger, a 79 percent free throw shooter, missed the front-end of a one-and-one. Things were not going UNO’s way.

But, the Mavs got back on defense, and then it happened.

Some seasons can be defined in one play. Few UNO fans saw this play – only the 40 or so in attendance – but for those there, I think this play defines the season.

Bennett jumped a pass by Tim Crowell and raced the length of the court, laying it in.

Bennett was the Mavericks key for much of the season. Without any depth, Bennett was the only center for UNO. There was no backup center.

At 6 foot 7 inches and 235 pounds, he had to go up against much bigger centers on a regular basis. If he was out, the Mavericks were very small and had a hard time guarding against height.

Bennett led the team in rebounding with 8.9 a game, and his heart and determination were even bigger.

His steal changed the game, started a 9-0 run and saving the season.

The run was capped with a Jenkins 3 pointer. Jenkins shot the ball, and as it went in turned and walked away.

The moment will be forever etched in my mind. His shot, his attitude: It said to me we are here, we are for real, and we will not be denied.

We are U-N-O.

Bennett finished with a career high 17 rebounds on the night.

A former walk-on, Justin Peterson, had 22 points, shooting 4 of 5 from the 3-point line. Sixteen of those points were in the second half. When they needed a basket, Peterson answered from the corner.

UNO never trailed after the Jenkins 3 pointer and won 82-76. They advanced to a semifinal match with Winona State and notched win No. 25 on the year, a school record.

For DII basketball fans, the name Winona State should strike some fear into you.

They had won 90 games out of 92 games since Jan. 13, 2006. The only losses, a home game to Division III St. Thomas this year and a shocking upset in the DII final last year (search YouTube for Barton; trust me, it’s worth your time).

Winona State had set an NCAA DII record for home wins in a row with 57. This is probably the premier basketball program in DII right now.

They pack 4,000 people into a high-school sized gymnasium. There student section is large, with students often lining up hours before the game to get tickets.

If you want to be the best, you have to beat the best. This was what UNO faced in their next game.

UNO came out ready to go. The team looked confident they could stay with the Warriors.

The fans were also ready. The 40 strong fans were determined to make some noise while outnumbered nearly 100 to 1.

The Mavericks got off to a fast start leading 2-0 after only 35 seconds.

I must admit: I got out my camera and took a picture of the scoreboard. If Winona destroyed UNO as they did many teams (the No. 5 team in the country got beat by 30 there the week before), I wanted the proof that UNO had a lead at one point.

UNO didn’t get destroyed, though.

They hung with Winona early on in a defensive battle. UNO even had a 6-point lead after a Albers 3 pointer only 9 minutes in.

Winona fought back though and took a 26-25 lead into halftime, though. The Mavericks had gotten the attention of their opposition.

Winona fans, who had earlier commented that all the other teams in the field were like high school teams compared to Winona, seemed a little uneasy.

UNO held a 2-point lead after 3 minutes in the second half when Bennett picked up his third foul. After he sat down, Jonte Flowers began to take over.

A lay up and a 3 pointer put Winona up 34-33. They extended the lead to 44-35 before Bennett checked back in 4 minutes later.

UNO got as close as one after that, when a Peterson 3 pointer cut it to 51-50 with just 8:56 to go. But they never could tie it.

Winona had extended the lead back to 10 points with 3:52 to go. Flowers stole the ball and threw down a monster dunk.

It had become clear at that point. A minute later Johnston picked up his fifth foul on a very questionable call, and left the game for the final time.

UNO tried to fight back but to no avail.

A dunk by John Smith of Winona put them up 14 points with a minute to go, and the season was down to its final minute. Albers had the final field goal in UNO’s dream season with a lay up.

Bennett checked out for the final time with 42 seconds to go, with much cheering from the UNO faithful. He gave it his all, and was very impressive going against one of the best big men in the country.

The final read Winona 80, Nebraska-Omaha 67. The season was over.

I can’t really say this was the greatest team in UNO basketball history. I’ve barely been around for anything.

I can say, though, that this was my favorite team to watch in any sport of all time. The way these players gave it their all game in and game out was amazing.

Bennett worked so hard that a Winona woman suggested he get several jerseys, because the red was black within a few minutes.

Johnston seemed to deliver every time he was asked to, a great model of senior leadership.

Peterson dove into the stands in search of every loose ball, risking limbs and occasionally little boys.

Bridger showed remarkable poise for a sophomore guiding the team’s offensive attack to 85.5 points per game.

Jenkins showed no fear as a 6-3 185 missile going straight to the rim. He got knocked down as many times as he scored, yet he never stopped going.

The Albers brothers both knocked down shot after shot after shot off the bench. Mitch had one of the best freshman seasons in Mavericks history average 11.5 points in just 18 minutes. The idea of watching him light up the nets for three more years is amazing.

Nate Owen was solid when he had to step up in place of Bridger. Ryan Pace, Matt Newman, Mike Mokeski and Grant Nieland were model teammates.

They didn’t get to play much, but were always supportive of their teammates and had a smile on their face.

This team was something special.

Coach Hansen did a remarkable job helping turn around a 12-16 team into a 25-7 one. His choice to switch up the offense may have made the biggest impact of all.

The free-flowing offense the Mavericks ran left opponents dizzy and lead to many open looks. The Mavericks dedication in practice showed as they shot a remarkable 79.7 percent from the free throw line for the year. That has to be a record.

It is a shame how few people noticed.

There are a lot of basketball fans in Omaha. There are a lot of basketball fans at UNO.

However, the Mavericks only averaged 919 fans per home game. They deserved many more.

UNO students, notorious for not taking much interest in athletics, missed out on a chance to support this team.

The NCC tournament and North Central Regional were only 4 hours and 6 hours away respectively. Tickets were free to the Tournament and $5 to the regional.

I made some great memories driving to these games and watching this team, and it didn’t cost an arm and a leg as it can at some bigger schools.

The good news is this: The team only loses seniors Bennett and Johnston.

They have added transfers Matt Atkins, a 6-9 center, and Dion Curry, a 6-5 forward. They also have signed Elkhorn Senior Josh Lynch, and Kaukauna High School (Wis.) senior Alex Welhouse for next year.

The team will be back at full strength with some injured players healthy again, too.

Hopefully they will be playing in the Council Bluffs Summer Draft League again this summer. Last year most of the regulars played together in it against teams such as South Dakota, Kearney and many former and current Huskers and Bluejays.

The Mavericks should be flying up and down the court again in November. Hopefully, the fans will be there with them this time.

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