(OMAHA, NE)—Transitioning from year-to-year can be a daunting challenge for many coaches across college basketball. Add in the revolving door of the exponentially expanding transfer portal and it creates even more hurdles for coaches in the offseason. Programs have had to adapt to this shift in recruiting and internal maintenance, but some teams just have better luck than others.
Omaha head coach, Derrin Hansen, has yet to find anything relatively resembling of a four-leaf clover since last March. Marlon Ruffin, who led the Mavericks in points per game last year, announced his intention to enter the transfer portal shortly after the conclusion of the 2020 season. He was expected to have a breakout campaign going into last year before sitting a majority of the conference schedule due to injury. Then in late April, veteran guard and Omaha-native Ayo Akinwole joined Ruffin in the transfer portal. Akinwole averaged 20.5 points per game on 60% from the floor in the final eight games of the season, and he led the team in points and assists while being second on the team in rebounds. After veteran big-man Matt Pile announced he wasn’t returning with his one year of eligibility remaining, and Zach Thornhill also electing not to return to Omaha—more questions seemed to be arising than answers.
Adding insult to injury, the Mavericks have yet to see appearances this season from the team’s next three top scorers in La’Mel Robinson, Nick Ferrarini, and Wanjang Tut for unknown reasons. This has led to the early starting lineup consisting of five players with a combined 12 starts between them in their college careers (nine coming from Sam’i Roe, three from Darrius Hughes). Even with Omaha’s successful reload this offseason in acquisitions of big men Isaiah Poor Bear-Chandler from Wichita State and Akol Arop from Nebraska, as well as the dead-eye three-point shooter from Salt Lake Community College in Felix Lemetti and stand-out high school talent from Omaha, Frankie Fidler—Omaha hasn’t been able to account for their full arsenal in the early stages of the season.
Even with all the uncontrollable forces against the Mavs—they were still a possession away from a 2-0 start.
Despite trailing by as many as 29 points in the first half, a short-handed Mavericks squad rallied with crisp play on both sides of the floor to get back within one point against Ball State with less than 4:00 left. Late free throws and a missed opportunity from Omaha in crunch time lifted the Cardinals to their first win of the season.
In the early stages of the contest, Ball State was in control and used multiple big runs to widen the gap of their lead. The Mavs got their first points of the contest following a quick 7-0 run from the Cardinals, which prompted another 10-4 run to open a 17-6 Ball State lead. The Cardinals started the game 7-of-13 from the floor, and after only making one of their first five three-point attempts—they proceeded to go 6-for-6 to finish the half from long range. Three of those three’s came on back-to-back-to-back possessions, which opened up a 36-10 lead in the back stretch of the opening half.
Omaha only made four of their first 21 attempts from the field.
An Arop back-cut dunk capped an 8-3 Omaha run to end the half, which foreshadowed what would ensue in the second half—but the damage had been done. Ball State went into the half leading 44-21. Jalen Windham led the way for the Cardinals with 11 points at the break, while Poor Bear-Chandler had six points for the Mavs.
Then, the Mavericks finally sparked. Buckets became easier to find, and the Maverick defense began to force mistakes from the Cardinals. Both teams exchanged nine points to start the half, and then Omaha’s dwindled roster began to catch fire.
Omaha put together two major runs in the half that combined to give Omaha a 34-9 scoring advantage in the 11-minute span leading up to the final four minutes of the game. The Mavs made 10-of-13 shots from the floor during a 21-3 run, while Ball State failed to gain any traction.
The Omaha defense flexed their muscles a bit in the half as well. After just two first half turnovers from the Cardinals, Omaha forced nine second half turnovers and kept Ball State to just 33% from the floor and from three-point range. This, combined with the barrage of baskets from Omaha, was the perfect recipe for early season chaos.
Lemetti was one of the newcomers to find a groove after an initial slow start, and he found it at the perfect time. The Sweden-native made back-to-back three’s during the Mavericks second surge in the half to inch the Mavs back to 64-57 with 6:00 left. Those crucial points brought the Mavs within ten points for the first time since there was 11:58 left in the first half. Although he finished with just eight points, his baskets put the Mavs back within striking distance—something they hadn’t seen in almost 25 minutes of game clock.
Fidler, who was held scoreless in the first half, showed glimpses of why he was the leading scorer on a nationally-ranked high school squad last season. He would finish 5-of-7 from the floor in the second half and tally 13 points, a team-high three assists, and tied for a team-high two steals. His biggest contribution came when he scored eight points in the final three minutes of the game, including a steal and coast-to-coast layup to bring the deficit to one point with 3:41 left, and then a three-pointer with 1:29 left to bring the game back to two points. Every time Ball State looked to put the Mavs away, the Freshman had something to say about it.
Omaha got the stop they needed with 12 seconds left to try to steal the game from Ball State. Down 71-69, Omaha had one possession to either win or extend the contest.
Lemetti beat Luke Bumbalough on a dribble drive to the basket with Poor Bear-Chandler sealing Payton Sparks at the rim. He had a layup as the clock was expiring, but couldn’t get it to drop. An ensuing foul and free throws helped Ball State hold on for a 73-69 win.
Fidler led the Mavs with 13 points, followed by Kyle Luedtke with 10. Luedtke also tied for the team lead in rebounds with Poor Bear-Chandler with six. Ball State had three players notch double-digit scoring performances, led by Windham with 14. Sparks tallied 13 points while Demarius Jacobs finished with 10. Omaha returns to action in Manhattan as they travel to take on Kansas State on Wednesday at 7 P.M.