Akinwole keeps Mavericks alive in Denver

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Reggie Wortman
CONTRIBUTOR

Ayo Akinwole has scored 300 points this season and is averaging 12.5 per game, both of which are career highs. The senior couldn’t have picked a much better time to score a career-high 32 points, as the Mavericks beat Denver to secure the final spot in the Summit League Tournament. Photo courtesy of Omaha Athletics.

In a college basketball season full of irregularities, the Omaha men’s basketball team was impacted greatly.

The Mavericks had to battle through a gauntlet of a schedule, which included an 11-game stretch away from home to start the season, on top of the ongoing pandemic. The grueling schedule, which included trips to six different states and eight different arenas, was not the only challenge the team faced though.

The injury bug hit Omaha hard.

The team’s leading scorer and standout player, Marlon Ruffin, has only played in 16 of Omaha’s 24 regular season games. The junior had been dealing with a lingering ankle injury that occurred against Drake on Dec. 3. Ruffin was also stretchered off the court on Feb. 6 after hitting his head after a layup. He hasn’t played since.

Juniors Marco Smith and Zach Thornhill were also out for several games as well. Thornhill, who appeared in all but one of the 31 games in the 2019-20 season, only saw six games this year due to injury. Sophomore forward Wanjang Tut also missed the last four games of the regular season.

However, there are three Mavericks who have played in all 24 games this season. Seniors Matt Pile and Ayo Akinwole, and sophomore Darrius Hughes. Akinwole is a big part of the reason the Mavericks are still playing at this point.

Heading into the final weekend of the regular season, the Mavericks found themselves tied with Denver at the bottom of the Summit League standings. Both teams only owned one conference win going into the weekend series.

The Summit League is one of the few Division I conferences where not every team advances to the tournament. Only the top eight teams get the chance to play in the postseason. With Omaha and Denver tied in last place, the final two regular season games were do-or-die for both programs.

Although the Mavericks have struggled team-wise and put just one tally in the win column, this year has been the best individual season for Akinwole. The senior guard from Papillion is amongst the top 100 Division I players in two categories; three-point percentage (43.8%), and free throw percentage (86.8%).

In game one against the Pioneers, Akinwole notched a single-game career-high 32 points. He finished 6-for-8 from three and a perfect 6-for-6 from the charity stripe. He continued to stay hot in game two, hitting six of his eight shots inside the three-point line and going 5-for-5 at the line.

The Mavericks picked up a pair of 80-76 wins at Denver and secured a spot in the Summit League Tournament. It was a big-time performance for the senior.

It’s unknown if this will be it for Akinwole in an Omaha jersey. Although this season is not over, both seniors on the Omaha roster could return, as the NCAA has granted an extra year of eligibility to all athletes because of the pandemic.

Akinwole, who has improved every year he’s been at UNO, as well as Pile would be two key pieces if they opt to return. The Mavericks are still looking for their first NCAA tournament bid in program history. Before they worry about what the future holds, they’ll want to help this Omaha team go on a run at the Summit League Tournament.

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