The Mavericks celebrated Senior Day against Cal State Bakersfield instead of in their season finale in order to give more time for saying goodbye to the Sapp Fieldhouse in the final game. That meant the ceremonies for Mitch Albers and John Ring were going to come more than a bit before their playing careers ended. I've never been much for ceremonies, especially ones like UNO does. It's nice to see the players recognized and given a basketball to recognize their contribution, but there's nothing real special about it as a fan. Creighton always has a highlight video of their seniors on the video board and lets their seniors make a speech to the fans. UNO would be well-advised to move in that direction in the future.
Mitch Albers and UNO basketball go hand-in-hand for me. I didn't know much about the team or watch the team much my freshman year of college. I went to one game, a road game at the University of Nebraska that intrigued me just because my school was playing a Division I team (we were still Division II at the time). The team wasn't very good that year. My sophomore year occurred right after I had started a student organization to organize a student section at UNO. By basketball season we were running full steam and I was excited to get to know the team and start going to games. Mitch scored in double figures his first four games as a Maverick, including 26 in his fourth game. I hadn't been able to make it to any games so my first time watching him was in a home upset over Emporia State where he scored 15. UNO scored 105 points, and I was hooked.
Mitch had an up-and-down freshman season. I'd rather not mention his three-point showing against our hated enemy Northwest Missouri State in a 20-point loss on my birthday. The Mavericks competed for the conference title, but wound up finishing fourth in the regular season before a magical run in the conference tournament. Mitch scored 14 and 17 in the first two tournament games.
The championship game was played in front of 128 fans in Mankato, Minn., between UNO and North Dakota. I was one of them. Mitch scored 16 points, and I even got to take a picture of him and his brother and teammate Tyler with the NCC Championship trophy.
Mitch scored 18 points in a first-round NCAA Tournament victory before cooling off and only scoring two in a 2nd round loss. You'd blame an older player for coming up small in a big game, but Mitch was only a freshman.
Mitch's sophomore year was more consistent and more impressive. He upped his scoring average to 15.7, still playing second fiddle to leading scorer Michael Jenkins. Mitch scored in double digits in all but five games. He scored 25 points in a victory over Northwest Missouri State on the night before my 21st birthday. That totally made up for letting me down the year before. The Mavericks had a disappointing year, but with Mitch only halfway done with his college eligibility, there was more fun to be had.
Then on June 9, 2009 my world was rocked. I found out that Mitch was transferring to Nebraska. His brother Tyler was leaving the team to focus on academics and Mitch felt this was the right time to try and live a dream he'd always had; being a Division I athlete. Who could blame him? He'd proven to be a great player at the Division II level and it was now or never. I was crushed, but I understood. Life goes on.
This is where the myth of Mitch Albers really took off for me. In October 2009 his Facebook posts seemed to indicate dissatisfaction with Lincoln. Something was going on, eventually word came out that Mitch was struggling at Nebraska (having mono had a lot to do with it) and was considering coming back to UNO. I might have changed my profile picture to a picture of him and pleaded that he come back. It was worth it. He did.
He could have rejoined at the semester break but he decided to redshirt to have a full year to recover and get ready. It was a shame he missed that year, as UNO went on to win the MIAA Conference tournament and really could have had a shot at going to the Elite 8 if Mitch had been on the team. As they say, life goes on.
Mitch's junior year he played second fiddle to Tyler Bullock. Mitch averaged 17.3 points and was the great player he's always been, but the team suffered some disappointment and wasn't able to knock off Missouri Southern in three tries and didn't get a bid to the Regional Tournament. As UNO's season ended, we were sad, but ready to see what he could do in his senior year. Maybe lead UNO to another conference tourney title? Maybe even lead them on a NCAA Tournament run?
Turns out the answer was, go Division I. I will always respect the athletes at UNO who lived through the transition. One day Mitch found out that he would never play another conference game again, the team was now going to be playing as an independent. He would never play another postseason game. There was no NCAA tournament to set as a goal. He wouldn't get a lot of marquee home games to play in front of his friends and family. He'd have to visit 14 states during the season to play games. The team struggled most of the time and wins were few and far between.
Yet Mitch never quit. He certainly had his bad games, but in the end he averaged a career high 18.3 points. They only got one win over a Division I team, Northern Illinois on the road, but we will always remember that Mitch Albers was the leader of the UNO basketball team when they got that first win. He had a shot at the all-time scoring mark at UNO but ended up finishing second. The team never made it a priority to try and get him the record. They played within the system and let the points come to him when they did. I really respected that.
Mitch Albers will definitely go down as one of my all-time favorite Mavericks. He did finally lead the team in scoring his senior season, a remarkable feat for someone who ended up second on the school's scoring charts. He was known for great driving to the hoop with good jump shooting. He was what has always been known as a scorer. Mitch Albers knew how to put the ball in the bucket, one way or another. Defensively, I will never forget Mitch taking charge after charge, after charge. Did he sell them? You bet. He hit that deck hard every time. Why not try to help push the ref's decision your way? Mitch was great at it.
Next year UNO will begin a season without Mitch. It will be tough to adjust; he's been a part of the program since my first falling for the team. I'll always look back at the last couple of years fondly though. When Mitch left for Nebraska, I never dreamed I would get to watch him play two more years. Then I did. That always made the memories all the sweeter and I was glad to see him out the way I did.
CAL STATE BAKERSFIELD 75, at NEBRASKA-OMAHA 65 02/12/2012
CAL STATE BAKERSFIELD 13-13 (0-0) -- S. Carter 7-13 5-9 21; I. Grayson 3-9 3-4 9; Z. Lamb 11-18 4-6 27; D. Johnson 1-5 0-0 3; M. Hughley 3-6 4-4 10; R. Savage 0-2 1-2 1; A. Young 2-5 0-0 4; T. White 0-1 0-0 0; I. Matip 0-1 0-0 0; K. Pearson 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 27-60 17-25 75. NEBRASKA-OMAHA 9-16 (0-0) -- M. Albers 8-17 8-8 24; C. Carter 2-7 4-6 9; J. Karhoff 4-11 9-12 18; C. Steffensmeier 3-6 0-0 8; A. Welhouse 1-6 0-0 2; M. Hagerbaumer 0-1 0-0 0; J. Coleman 1-3 0-0 2; B. Freeman 1-3 0-0 2; J. Ring 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 20-55 21-26 65.
Three-point goals: CSB 4-14 (D. Johnson 1-1; S. Carter 2-4; I. Grayson 0-2; A. Young 0-1; T. White 0-1; I. Matip 0-1; Z. Lamb 1-4), NEBO 4-13 (C. Carter 1-2; C. Steffensmeier 2-4; M. Albers 0-4; A. Welhouse 0-2; J. Karhoff 1-1); Rebounds: CSB 35 (R. Savage 9), NEBO 28 (J. Karhoff 8); Assists: CSB 11 (I. Grayson 5), NEBO 10 (M. Albers 3); Total Fouls -- CSB 24, NEBO 22; Fouled Out: CSB-None; NEBO-None.