From 1978 until 2008 Nebraska Omaha (UNO) and South Dakota were part of the North Central Conference and enjoyed yearly battle. The two schools made great competitors due to their proximity, just 2.5 hours apart. Over the years the two teams met in basketball 79 times with the record fittingly at 38-38-1. In 2007 the rivalry was ended as South Dakota announced they would move to Division I, while UNO decided to remain in Division II and join the MIAA. Traditional UNO fans had to give up the rivalries they had grown to love, and did their best to move on. All of that changed on March 13th 2011.
On March 13th 2011 UNO shocked the city by announcing they were cutting the football and wrestling programs, wrestling having just won the DII National Title the night before, and moving to Division I to join the Summit League. Most fans were furious. Cutting two of the most popular sports at UNO was a decision that people (including myself) were not willing to accept. Great tradition was lost, but lurking in the darkness of that day was the fact that some great rivalries were renewed with North Dakota State, South Dakota State, and the Coyotes of South Dakota! My wife and I were not UNO fans during the old NCC glory days. I experienced the end of the NCC when I fell in love with UNO basketball as a sophomore at the school in 2007-08. That was the final year of the NCC and thus I was present for UNO's last battle with South Dakota (UINO won 75-60 in Omaha), the last ever NCC Basketball game (UNO defeating North Dakota in front of 128 people in Mankato, Minn), and even South Dakota's last DII game (a 70-69 loss to Northern State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament in Winona, Minnesota). My wife fell in love with me in 2009 and got brought into the UNO Basketball family quickly. Like me, she grew attached to the upbeat style and friendly, hardworking players. Now I have a basketball road trip partner for life, a man can not ask for a better thing!
For both of us the trip to South Dakota and the Dakota Dome for a basketball game was a new thing. We left Omaha on a beautiful late fall morning and drove the two hours north up I-29 to Vermilion. It's a wonder it only took two hours, because this summer a huge flood on the Missouri River shut down bridges and the Interstate for miles along the Nebraska-Iowa border. We would have had to take a 30-minute detour a month ago, but construction crews had worked for days straight to replace the heavily damaged Interstate and we weren't slowed down at all. The remnants of the flood are easy to see on the landscape here. Along the Interstate are giant fields full of dirt instead of crops and trees that clearly show where the water stood for weeks on end.
The DakotaDome is best used for football. The dome's seating is arranged in that way, with seats stretching 100 yards wide. During basketball season they roll up the football field, put a basketball court out, and bring over some temporary bleachers for the side opposing the main stands. Our seats were in these bleachers, behind UNO's bench, three rows up. There was a decent contingent of UNO fans, perhaps a sign that the rivalry will become something to get excited about again.
Just like the old NCC days, the two teams battled throughout. South Dakota led most of the game as UNO tried to draw even but couldn't quite reach it. Late in the game UNO finally took a short lived lead, but the two teams found themselves tied, once again, late in the game. South Dakota got a defensive stop with fifteen seconds left, hit two FTs with seven seconds to go, and got a block on UNO's last second layup attempt.
The final score read 83-81, but this game wasn't about the score. This game was about tradition being resumed, two familiar foes resuming their battle, and a program and an university moving on from a difficult March day into a bright November afternoon. Basketball is going to be an important part of the UNO experience in the future. The school and fans will long for the day that they get to play in the Big Dance and pray for the day that they upset that big name team. But what is going to make this special for UNO is going to be games like I saw on Sunday. It's going to be games between two old rivals that are finally together again, where each possession matters, and both groups of fans are going to go home proud of their school and the effort shown on the court.
South Dakota, it's good to be back.
at SOUTH DAKOTA 83, NEBRASKA OMAHA 81 11/20/2011
SOUTH DAKOTA 1-2 (0-0) -- J. Krogman 5-18 2-2 16; L. Krogman 5-18 2-2 16; T. Gruis 5-8 5-5 15; C. Westbrook 4-13 7-8 15; N. Hilliard IV 2-4 2-2 8; S. Tecker 3-5 3-4 9; R. Andreotti 1-2 2-7 4; J. Boots 5-5 0-0 11; B. Bos 1-5 0-0 3; A. Saint-Gelias 1-2 0-0 2. Totals 32-80 23-30 99.
Three-point goals: - , SDAK 12-33 (L. Krogman 4-10; J. Boots 1-1; A. Saint-Gelias 0-1; C. Westbrook 0-4; S. Tecker 0-1; J. Krogman 4-10; N. Hilliard IV 2-2; B. Bos 1-4); Rebounds: , SDAK 42 (S. Tecker 8); Assists: , SDAK 19 (C. Westbrook 6); Total Fouls -- , SDAK 18; Fouled Out: -; SDAK-None.