By Nate Tenopir, Sports Editor
For months the anticipation had been growing for UNO basketball to tip off the season at the new Ralston Arena. When the night finally arrived it appeared to take the Mavs some getting used to.
But thanks to a few sparks off the bench, and a quick adjustment to a new home, the Mavs opened their new house successfully with a 77-64 win over Northern Illinois.
“It was an emotional night for a lot of reasons and for a lot of people,” Head Coach Derrin Hansen said. “I’m glad we won the basketball game. It’s been a long time coming since we announced we were gonna play here.”
It’s been in fact over nine months since the announcement was made. When excitement is allowed to grow for that long, it can often be detrimental.
Early on it took the starting five of Koang Doluony, Alex Welhouse, John Karhoff, CJ Carter and Justin Simmons almost three minutes to get their first hoop. But UNO went up 8-2 and sophomore Alex Phillips came in off the bench to pour in eight straight and extend the lead out to 16-7.
In the second half it was freshman Marcus Tyus that provided the spark. After Phillips was whistled for his fourth personal foul, Hansen inserted Tyus who gave the Mavs seven points on 3-for-5 shooting.
During Tyus’ seven minutes UNO extended the lead from 51-47 to 65-54. Phillips and Tyus had 15 of the 21 points that came off of the bench.
“Tonight he got his jumper going a little bit, got to the rim once, and he really, I thought, got us going, sparked us [and] took the pressure off us, so to speak,” Hansen said about Phillips. “I think we were a little bit tight early and I kind of had a feeling that we would be in situations like this. But Alex, I thought, really got us going.”
Hansen also said that he knew at some point Tyus was going to get into the game. Fouls dictated when Hansen made that decision but it proved to be the right one at the right time.
“He gave us quality minutes,” Hansen said about Tyus. “He was aggressive, he plays fearless, plays easy. We decided this afternoon that he was gonna play at some point tonight. I wasn’t sure when it was going to be then all of a sudden the fouls started to rack up a little bit and there it was. That, if nothing, is gonna give us depth.”
Sophomore CJ Carter led the way with 16 points, earning 10 from the free throw line while shooting 3-of-7 and adding five assists. Carter split his points evenly between the first and second half but started to find his game and his step in the final 20 minutes.
“I thought CJ was really, really good tonight especially in transition and taking it to the rim,” Hansen said. “He’s really quick with the basketball, he made two or three moves that I didn’t think he was gonna get to the rim and the next thing you know he was there by himself.”
Poor free throw shooting to start, and trouble rebounding throughout, kept UNO from putting the game away earlier. In the first half the Mavs earned 14 trips to the charity stripe, but converted on just seven of those chances.
After the final whistle UNO lost the battle on the glass 35-28. The final number was slightly better than the 22-12 rebounding average Northern Illinois had in the first half.
Karhoff had 12 points down low and added six assists, but it was a battle all night.
“It kind of was grind for me, personally, to score,” Karhoff said. “They did a good job pushing me off the block. I felt in the first half I missed a couple I can make, but it’s a long game. At that point you have to let the game come to you and not force anything.”
The patience from Karhoff and the rest of the team paid off. More than once the Mavs built a big lead and the Huskies stormed back.
After taking an 18-11 lead, Omaha turned the ball over five times and missed two shots to allow NIU to get even 18-18 with eight minutes left in the half. In the second half a layup by Karhoff pushed the Mavs to a 48-38 lead three minutes in.
But a jumper by the Huskies’ Akeem Springs was followed by seven straight Northern Illinois points in just 90 seconds. Phillips picked up his fourth then Tyus entered the game and the Huskies never got closer.
UNO ended with four players in double digits. In addition to Carter’s 16 and Karhoff’s 12, Welhouse added 13 and Simmons put in 12.
As a team the Mavs shot 24-for-51 (47 percent) from the field, 6-for-17 from three (35 percent) and 23-of-31 from the free throw line (74 percent). Omaha held NIU to 42 percent from the field, and the Huskies made just 17-of-30 free throws (57 percent).
“Coach has been saying all preseason that we’re not gonna have a guy who averages around 20,” Karhoff said. “I think that’s good for us to have different weapons that can score. The defense is gonna have to respect everyone.”
The day finally arrived, UNO showed up and did not disappoint. It was memorable but it also might be a good thing that it’s finally over.
“That’s something all of us are gonna remember for a long time,” Karhoff said. “It’s good to get that one with all the hoopla that’s around it, it was good to get that one. I think moving forward now we have something to build on and momentum. That was definitely a lot of fun and we had a lot of guys step up, it was a good win for us.