UNO advances to Southland Finals wIth 75-63 win over Sam Houston

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BOX SCORE

Thomas leads Privateers with 18 points, 3 assists; UNO to play A&M-Corpus Christi on Saturday

Mike ZenoKATY, Texas – The Privateers started hot, played well with a lead and held on down the stretch as the University of New Orleans men’s basketball team punched its ticket to the Southland Conference Tournament championship contest as the top-seeded Privateers defeated No. 5 seed Sam Houston State, 75-63, in a semifinals matchup at 5 p.m. in the Leonard E. Merrell Center.

After giving up the first points of the game, UNO scored the next eight and never trailed the rest of the way. The Privateers led by as many as 19 at 52-33 with 14:20 to play in regulation, but the Bearkats refused to go away quietly and whittled the lead down to 66-60 with 2:19 on the clock. New Orleans, however, hit 7-of-8 free throws down the stretch and added a layup by senior guard Tevin Broyles to advance to a league title game since the 2004 Sun Belt Conference Tournament.

With the victory, the Privateers improve to 19-11 on the year and will play No. 2 seed Texas A&M-Corpus Christi for the tournament title and the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament on Saturday. Tipoff is set for 8:30 p.m. and the contest will be broadcast live on ESPN2. Sam Houston State, which played its third game in as many days at the SLC Tournament, fell to 21-13 and will now learn of its postseason fate when the respective brackets are announced on Sunday.

The win was UNO’s first over Sam Houston State (21-13) since joining the SLC for the 2013-14 season and its first overall against the Bearkats since a 99-67 victory in Lakefront Arena on Jan. 15, 1987.

“My hat goes off to Sam,” Southland Conference Coach of the Year Mark Slessinger said. “They played a phenomenal tournament and continued to battle. I knew that our guys would be up to play them. That’s a team that we battle with every time. It was a big win for us.

“It’s the only team in the league that we did not beat this year. The guys knew that. It was a big motivational point for us. We had a great week of preparation. My staff did a phenomenal job with the scouting report and the prep of getting the guys ready…When you do this long enough, and I’ve been doing this for 20 years, you know when they’re ready and they were ready.”

As a team, the Privateers shot 50.0 percent from the field (24-of-48), but a 9-of-24 showing in the second half (.375) afforded Sam Houston State a chance to come back. The Bearkats held a 38-29 rebounding advantage, turned 16 offensive boards into 19 second-chance points and Sam Houston State’s reserves outscored its counterparts from UNO, 22-18.

The difference in the game came at the charity stripe and on defense as New Orleans converted 24-of-30 free throw opportunities (.800) and forced 15 turnovers. The Privateers turned those miscues into 28 points, including 14 via fast break.

Senior forward Erik Thomas, who was honored before the game as the SLC Player of the Year, led the way for the regular-season champs with 18 points and three assists to go with a block and a steal. Senior guard Christavious Gill was next offensively with 15 points while fellow senior guards Tevin Broyles and Nate Frye added 10 each. Junior forward Makur Puou paced the Privateers with seven rebounds, and the tandem of Gill and junior forward Travin Thibodeaux shared game-high steal honors with three thefts apiece.

“It was great for us to come out with a lot of energy today and that’s what we did,” Thomas said. “They’re a little worn out from the last two games, and we had a lot of energy and a lot of voice. We just happened to be the better team today.”

Sam Houston State drew first blood on a layup by Dakairi Henderson 43 seconds into the ballgame before the Privateers used an 8-0 run to spark a 19-5 rally over the next 6:29 to go on top, 19-7. The first-half advantage swelled to as many as 16 on two occasions, including a 35-19 edge with 4:27 to go before the break, but the Bearkats got two free throws by John Dewey and back-to-back buckets by Torry Butler to whittle the advantage down to 10 at 35-25 at the 2:28 mark. UNO scored the final four points of the half to go into the locker room on top, 39-25.

The lead bounced between 12 and 14 points over the first four-plus minutes of the second half, and with a 45-33 lead with 15:54 to play in regulation, the Privateers appeared to take control of the contest with a 7-0 run to take their biggest lead of the day at 52-33. After a Sam Houston State timeout, the Bearkats scored 19 of the next 21 points over the next 4:08 to get back to within 12 and got to within single digits at 64-57 on a 3-pointer by Cameron Delaney with 2:54 to go. Sam Houston State’s Dakarai Henderson answered a pair of Thibodeaux free throws with a trey of his own to make it 66-60, but the Bearkats hit just one of their final five field goal tries and UNO’s free throw shooting kept the lower seed at arms’ reach the rest of the way.

“In the second half, they came out and really made some tough shots,” Slessinger added. “The part that I was most pleased about with our team was they didn’t get flustered. They made a crazy shot, we got a tough call that didn’t go our way and we never went crazy. We never lost focus, they just stayed the course and knew the next play was coming. That’s what kept us in this thing.

“They have some great shooters. They kept shooting and they were shooting free and loose because they were having to come from behind. In the end, our guys closed possessions out, got big rebounds and didn’t give them second and third chances. They got a couple of more offensive rebounds than we would have liked, but over the course of the game, I was pleased with our ability to close out possessions.”

Henderson was one of two Sam Houston State players to post double-digit scoring totals with 16 points while Chris Galbreath, Jr., added 11. Butler led all players with 13 rebounds and John Dewey, III, posted a game-high four assists. Defensively, Galbreath had two of the team’s three rebounds while Paul Baxter led the Bearkats with two steals.

UNO QUOTES FOLLOWING NEW ORLEANS’ 75-63 SLC SEMIFINAL WIN OVER SAM HOUSTON STATE

Head Coach Mark Slessinger

On winning the regular-season conference championship
“It’s a great culmination for our University. It’s a great culmination the hard work and dedication these guys have put forward and the support of our administration from the president’s office on down. This is a team effort. I’ve said it many times and I’ll continue to say it – our team is champions, but so is our faculty, our students and staff, our alumni and the city we love. They’re all in first place and a champion again.”

On if he was concerned the lack of tournament experience would hinder the team’s ability to get off to a good start
“I wasn’t. My hat goes off to Sam. They played a phenomenal tournament and continued to battle. I knew that our guys would be up to play them. That’s a team that we battle with every time. It was a big win for us. It’s the only team in the league that we did not beat this year. The guys knew that. It was a big motivational point for us. We had a great week of preparation. My staff did a phenomenal job with the scouting report and the prep of getting the guys ready. As crazy as this sounds, the one thing I was not worried about – the least thing I was worried about – was them being tight, not coming out loose and not be ready to come out firing. That was the least of my worries. I was worried about maybe I would call the wrong play, maybe we would maybe over-covered a ball-screen coverage or something. They were ready to play. When you do this long enough, and I’ve been doing this for 20 years, you know when they’re ready and they were ready.”

On how big a piece of the gameplan was to attack Sam Houston early and force turnovers
“It was huge for us to be able to be opportunistic defensively. We talk a lot about defensive accuracy in our defensive positioning. Today, they were pretty accurate. In the times we weren’t accurate, we had phenomenal voice and a phenomenal attitude to kind of make up for our mistakes. That’s been an amazing part about this group. They had a great will to win and they weren’t going to be taken out of what we do. By being there, we were able to force some turnovers, get out on the break and get some easy baskets. That’s a good team. [Sam Houston State] is a very, very good basketball team. It’s one that beat us at home, and we haven’t lost at home often. We were lucky to advance against them.”

On the effort of Michael Zeno off the bench
“Michael is amazing. Michael has one of the most infectious attitudes of anyone I’ve ever coached. He’s relentlessly positive. He’s always fired up. He’s always moving in the right direction. The guys call him ‘Hype’ because he’s always getting guys going. Tonight was a great example of that. Tonight was about his heart. What you saw in the first half was Michael’s heart, and it was true and honest. That’s him. The dunk he had, that was SC Top 10.”

On what UNO did to keep Sam Houston State from mounting a comeback early in the second half
“In the second half, they came out and really made some tough shots. The part that I was most pleased about with our team was they didn’t get flustered. They made a crazy shot, we got a tough call that didn’t go our way and we never went crazy. We never lost focus, they just stayed the course and knew the next play was coming. That’s what kept us in this thing. We never let them get too close. They have some great shooters. They kept shooting and they were shooting free and loose because they were having to come from behind. A couple of nights before, it was a different story. In the end, our guys closed possessions out, got big rebounds and didn’t give them second and third chances. They got a couple of more offensive rebounds than we would have liked, but over the course of the game, I was pleased with our ability to close out possessions.”

Senior Forward Erik Thomas

On the importance of getting off to a good start vs a team playing its third game in as many days
“It was great for us to come out with a lot of energy today and that’s what we did. They’re a little worn out from the last two games, and we had a lot of energy and a lot of voice. We just happened to be the better team today.”

On converting free throws when the game got tight late
“It was crucial for us. It was about our, our toughness and being able to lock in over the last two minutes, which was important for us. That’s what we did. We stepped up to the line and we were able to finish the game out.”

Senior Guard Christavious Gill

On the importance of getting off to a good start vs a team playing its third game in as many days
“They play two games the previous two nights, so it was important to try and wear them down. Getting on them quick and wearing them down was a big key to our plan. That helped us at the end. We got a big lead, they came back a little bit but we held it up at the end and got the win.

On the team committing just 10 turnovers
“It was really important. In the two losses we took against Northwestern State and Southeastern [Louisiana], we had some crucial turnovers at the end of the game. We got focused in practice after those two games. Coach got on us hard. He got us prepared for all presses, no matter who it was. I thought we executed well tonight compared to those two games. That got us over the top at the end.”

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Richie Weaver

Richie Weaver

Director of Athletic Media Relations, University of New Orleans

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