Joe Scott picked the right night to go with Bryant Rucker.
Making his first career start, Denver’s 6-foot sophomore guard poured in a career-best 19 points — 15.4 more than his season average — including 12 in the Pioneers’ sizzling first half.
Staked to a 12-point lead after shooting 72 percent from the field in the opening 20 minutes, Denver held off an early second-half rally by UNO and pulled away for a 74-60 victory Thursday night before 2,015 at the Ralston Arena.
“Good for him, but he hasn’t played like that,” UNO coach Derrin Hansen said of Rucker. “He got two or three right off the bat and then you start looking around a little bit, because that hasn’t been happening. It’s hard to scouting report against that, to prep against that. ... All of a sudden some of the things we thought we could do go out the window.”
Rucker moved into a starting spot that had been held by 6-9 forward Dom Samac, who didn’t play Thursday. Rucker made 7 of 9 from the field and 4 of 5 from 3-point range, including shot-clock buzzer-beaters in each half, the second after UNO had gotten within 54-47.
Denver (9-10, 2-2 Summit League), the preseason pick to finish second in the league, has been looking to solidify its starting lineup after the offseason transfer of Royce O’Neale to Baylor.
“It’s been a work in progress to fill that hole,” said Scott, the Denver coach who earned his 200th career win Thursday. “That has led to a little of our inconsistency. But Rucker has stuck with it, and to be honest, he’s played well every time I’ve put him in there for the last month. ... He may be a big part of the answer.
“I think the other four guys feel comfortable playing with him. I think that showed up tonight.”
Denver was feeling real comfortable indeed during a first half in which it ran its Princeton offense — a series of cuts, combined with the ability to make 3s — to near perfection.
“We had a plan in place to take away both of them (cuts and 3s), and we just didn’t do a good enough job,” UNO senior center John Karhoff said. “I don’t think we communicated very well in the first half at all, and that starts with me in guarding the guy in the high post. As a whole we need to do a better job of taking the scout and putting it on the floor.”
Brett Olson, who scored 11 of his 15 points in the first half, scored seven in the opening minutes as Denver jumped to a 9-2 lead. Marcus Byrd, who hit 4 of 5 from 3 while scoring 16 points, had nine as the Pioneers made 18 of 25 from the field in the opening 20 minutes, including 6 of 10 from 3-point range.
“We needed to keep it out of the net so we could get into some transition and get some quicker plays,” Hansen said. “We didn’t do a very good job of that, and you have to give Denver credit.
“When you give up 10 layups or dunks in the first half, you’re going to be in the predicament we were in. If we just take away half of those, it’s a basketball game.”
Karhoff scored 15 first-half points while making all six of his field-goal attempts and led UNO (11-8, 1-3) with 18 points.
The Mavs couldn’t take advantage of a chance when star forward Chris Udofia and point guard Jalen Love were on the Denver bench with four fouls each early in the second half, after the Mavs had cut it to seven points. Instead, UNO fell further behind — Olson’s fast-break layup made it 68-48 with 6:40 to go.
After opening league play with three difficult road games, UNO was hoping to start regaining ground as the home schedule began turning in its favor. Instead, Karhoff said the Mavs came out flat.
“It’s really disappointing,” he said. “... We came home and had a great crowd. That’s something we’re experienced enough to not have happen. That’s going to have to change.”
Denver, which has lost nine games to top 130-level teams, many of them close, finished the game shooting 62.5 percent overall and 10 of 19 (52.6 percent) from 3.
“We were just really consistent throughout the game,” Scott said. “If you want to win a road game you have to be that way, and you certainly have to do that against a team (like UNO) that’s been playing well. They know they’ve been playing well, and it’s hard to go on the road and beat a team that knows its playing well.”
Hansen said the Mavs are in a similar situation to last year, when they returned home from an extended time on the road to play their first Summit League home game and were blitzed by South Dakota — then had to play another Summit home game less than 48 hours later.
While UNO hammered Missouri-Kansas City last season, this time around South Dakota (3-1 Summit) comes to town to face a Mav team Saturday that has lost four of its last five.
“Of our games at home, this was probably the least amount of energy and togetherness and attention to detail that we’ve had,” Hansen said. “Those are staples. Those are things we’ve done most nights. Not every night have we been perfect, but we’ve been pretty good most nights. Tonight wasn’t one of them.”