UNO had to scratch, claw, push, pull, bump and grab.
Sometimes just to get through the lane.
That's what it's like to play Western Illinois, but the Mavericks were good enough to outlast the Leathernecks 71-60 before 1,083 fans Saturday at Ralston Arena to even their Summit League record at 4-4.
“It's never fun playing Western Illinois, because you know going into the game what is going to happen,” UNO center John Karhoff said. “They're physical. They did have us frustrated for parts of the game. But we fought through that. The coaches told us in the locker room that February isn't pretty, and we did what we had to do.”
Justin Simmons' 3-pointer broke a 47-47 score with 6:28 left and started an 8-0 run, and the Mavs held on from there to avenge a Jan. 11 road loss in which Western Illinois overcame a 12-point second-half deficit to win in overtime.
“I think it was in everybody's mind what had happened in the second half of the first game — how we let them come back and ended up going to overtime and losing,” Simmons said. “None of us wanted that to happen again.”
After Simmons' 3 and two free throws by CJ Carter, senior backup guard Caleb Steffensmeier dove and scrapped for a loose ball, gaining possession on what eventually led to a fast break. Simmons dropped a pass off for Mike Rostampour in the lane, and Rostampour made a difficult catch and finish for a 54-47 lead.
“That was a huge play by Caleb, getting us a possession and getting us out on the fast break,” Karhoff said. “That's the kind of plays that we needed to pull this one out.”
After a Western Illinois timeout, Rostampour hedged on a ball screen for Mike Miklusak and the WIU freshman then dribbled off Rostampour's leg, creating another fast break on which Rostampour was fouled and made one free throw.
Twice the Leathernecks closed within six points, the last with 2:23 left on free throws by Mohamed Conde. But center Michael Ochereobia fouled out on the following UNO possession and Western Illinois coach Jim Molinari was hit with a technical foul for arguing.
Karhoff made all four free throws to give UNO a 63-53 lead with 2:06 left, and the Mavs kept the lead at seven points or more the rest of the way.
“This game and the game in Macomb were eerily similar,” UNO coach Derrin Hansen said. “... But our guys bailed us out. We finished a couple at the rim. Got a rebound and putback. Made all of our free throws. And that got us over the hump.”
Karhoff and Simmons, both seniors, each scored 19 for UNO. Karhoff had 13 in the first half, while Simmons scored nine in the final 6½ minutes.
Freshman guard Garret Covington led Western Illinois with 21. The Leathernecks had only eight players available because of injuries to starting forward Tate Stensgaard and backup guard Remy Roberts-Burnett.
Western Illinois (9-14, 3-5) makes things difficult close to the basket. Tellingly, 12 of UNO's 15 turnovers were by its low-post players and the other three were by Simmons, a slashing wing.
“If you go in there soft, that's not going to get it done,” Simmons said. “If you go in there strong, gritting your teeth, then that's a different story and that's when the refs come into it. But it's like playing a pickup game almost.”
While UNO shot just 34.8 percent from the field in the second half, it limited the Leathernecks to 27.6-percent second-half shooting and to 32.7 percent for the game.
UNO never trailed, led by as many as nine in the first half and got the lead back to nine again twice in the second half before Western rallied to tie it at 43, 45 and 47.
“In the second half, we do have some character and we fought back hard,” Molinari said. “We got the game going to our identity, more possession by possession. Our transition defense was great during that time.”
After a strong preseason, UNO started league play with the loss at Western Illinois and has been playing catch-up ever since. Now the Mavs are at .500 with six games left, four of them at home — including big Thursday and Saturday games with South Dakota State and North Dakota State this week.
“Typical February game,” Hansen said. “It was a grind. February is fun basketball when you can get one like that, and we've got two good ones coming up.”