In the more prestigious conferences of college basketball (such as the Big 10 Conference), teams can bank on their league’s strength to bring them a possible post-season tournament appearance without necessarily winning the conference.
But in a league like the Summit League, every coach and player knows that their only shot to make the NCAA tournament (known as March Madness) is winning their conference.
That’s why the end of December is a pivot point for both Omaha basketball teams – the focus shifts from non-conference opponents to teams inside the league.
After finishing the non-conference portion of their schedule strong with a three-win streak (capped off by an 83-66 victory over Rice), Omaha continued their winning ways against Denver on Dec. 28, kicking off a three-game home stand.
Five Mavericks scored in double figures, and guard JT Gibson had a career night with a team-high 22 points.
“It’s great seeing teammates’ shots go in,” said team captain Mitch Hahn. “When we get into conference play, it just seems to build everyone’s confidence.”
“It felt good to pull (our conference opener) out tonight,” said Gibson.
Denver had been pegged to finish third in the Summit League in a pre-season poll, while Omaha had been predicted to finish eighth.
The team made a quick turnaround to play Oral Roberts on Dec. 30, but fell short by a score of 84-87. Three days later, they avenged a loss late last season by thrashing North Dakota State, 90-77.
Currently, five Mavericks are averaging double-figures in scoring. Omaha next plays new league member North Dakota on Thursday, Jan. 10. They stand at 8-8 (2-1 Summit).
Omaha began conference play with a slow start dropping games to both Denver and Oral Roberts by scores of 68-95 and 56-71, respectively.
Denver marks only the third time this season that Omaha has scored more than 60 points, and only the second time against a Division I opponent.
“We’ve learned that we kind of have to weather the storm,” said guard Rayanna Carter after the Oral Roberts loss.
Coach Brittany Lange noted an improvement between the first game and the second. “It’s all fixable things. I was really encouraged with what I saw.”
The starting five for the women’s squad this year includes four new players.
Omaha (5-9, 0-2 Summit at time of publication) will next prepare to face North Dakota (Jan. 9) and Western Illinois (Jan. 16) on the road before playing South Dakota at Baxter Arena on Jan. 20.