Privateers overcome sluggish first half, win program’s first SLC title and first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1996
KATY, Texas – The Privateer faithful have been waiting 21 years for their team to make it back to the NCAA Tournament. So what’s an extra five minutes when you’re having fun?
Following a path of twists and turns over the last decade-plus which featured the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina, a proposed move from the ranks of Division I and a preseason poll which had the team picked to finish as low as 10th in the 13-team Southland Conference, the University of New Orleans announced to the college basketball world that it is back where it feels it belongs as the top-seeded Privateers defeated No. 2 seed Texas A&M-Corpus Christi in overtime, 68-65, in the SLC Tournament Championship Game on Saturday evening in the Leonard E. Merrell Center.
With the victory, UNO punched its first ticket to the Big Dance for the first time since 1996 and improved to 20-11 on the year. The Privateers, who will learn of their postseason destination and potential opponents when the NCAA Selection Show airs live on CBS on Sunday at 4:30 p.m., will be making their 11th time in program history and the fifth time as a Division I entity. Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, meanwhile, fell to 20-11 overall after falling in the conference title game for a second-consecutive year.
“This is an unbelievable blessing for not only our team and our student-athletes – and I’ve said this a lot of times – but our city is a champion again. Our faculty, our University, our students, our faculty and our staff are champions again. This isn’t about me. It’s a much bigger movement than that. I’m blessed more than I deserve…and I’m so humbled to be these guys coach. It isn’t any fancier than that. I wish I had something a lot cooler to say. What an unbelievable story.
“We had a great story to tell and we might as well have made it to overtime and made it a little more interesting. We’ve had a lot of twists and turns in this chapter, and I’m glad we added some pretty good ones today.”
Senior forward Erik Thomas, who claimed 2016-17 Southland Conference Player of the Year honors, was named SLC Tournament MVP after posting a double-double with 14 points and 11 rebounds to go with a team-best three assists. For the tourney, Thomas averaged 16.0 points, 7.0 rebounds and 3.0 assists per game. Senior guard Christavious Gill, who had 10 points, two steals, one assist and a rebound against the Islanders, was also named to the All-Tournament Team. Rounding out the all-tourney squad were Rashawn Thomas and Cole Martinez of Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, along with Stephen F. Austin’s Leon Gilmore, III.
Senior guard Tevin Broyles was second to Thomas offensively for the Privateers with 15 points while junior swing man Michael Zeno rounded out UNO’s double-figure scorers with 10 off the bench. Broyles and senior guard Nate Frye tied Gill for team-high steal honors at two each.
As a team, New Orleans posted a 42.4 field goal percentage (25-of-59), bouncing back from a 10-of-32 effort in the first half (.313) to connect on a combined 15-of-27 tries in the second half and overtime period (.556). The Privateers held a commanding 40-25 rebounding advantage, turned 19 offensive boards into 21 second-chance points and outscored the Islanders in the paint, 40-18.
“I told these guys at halftime that this has been an amazing story,” Slessinger said. “It’s a story about rebirth, renaissance and it’s a story of commitment of when guys come together playing for a purpose and love of the game, our love for each other, our university and the city that we absolutely adore and love that some magic stuff can happen.”
With the score knotted at 60-all at the end of regulation, Frye nailed a jumper to open the overtime period before Martinez answered with a 3-pointer to put the Islander on top, 63-62. That, however, would be Texas A&M-Corpus Christi’s lone field goal of the stanza as junior forward Travin Thibodeaux hit 1-of-2 free throws two possessions later and Broyles followed with a jumper and a pair of shots from the charity stripe to give the Privateers a 67-63 lead they would not relinquish.
Single free throws by Ehab Amin and Thomas helped the Islanders make it a two-point affair with 1:02 to play and Broyles scored what proved to the final point of the day with a free throw with 25.8 seconds on the clock. Texas A&M had a chance to retie the game, but Thomas’ 3-point shot was no good, a put-back attempt by Kareem South was off the mark and UNO was awarded possession as the ball bounced out of bounds with 0.8 second remaining. Erik Thomas lofted a long pass up the right sideline which Frye was able to haul in as the clock hit zero to spark the Privateer celebration.
“I didn’t think that we were us in the first half,” Slessinger added. “We got out of our identity a little bit in that first half. We got sideways a little bit and didn’t come out with the fire that we needed to, especially defensively. You saw that when the second half came. We got a lot better on ball-screen defense and hedging, and we got back into attack mode.
“Sometimes you can want it too bad, and I think a lot of times early they were wanting it pretty bad. They weren’t missing shots on purpose, but they kept playing hard. We got back to being us and doing all of the little things. We’ve got winners. We’ve got winners and we’ve got great kids that represent our faculty, our staff and our student body well.”
The two teams traded 6-0 runs to open the contest and traded blows for much of the game’s first eight minutes. New Orleans held a 12-11 advantage with 12:58 to play in the first half before the Islanders rattled off seven-straight points to take an 18-12 lead. The Privateers trailed by as many as 10 three times during the opening stanza, including a 33-23 deficit in the final minute, but Frye hit a 3-pointer as the horn sounded to trim the lead down to seven at the break.
The last-second trey sparked 23-9 run to stake New Orleans to a 46-42 advantage with 9:22 to play in regulation, but Texas A&M-Corpus Christi responded with an 8-2 run over the next 3:23 to take a 50-48 lead and neither team led by more than two the rest of the half. The Privateers trailed 60-58 following three free throws by Rashawn Thomas with 51 seconds to go before the end of the period, but Frye was fouled by Amin the next time down the court and the four-year veteran sank both of his free throws to tie the contest.
Both teams had a chance to potentially win in regulation, but Martinez missed a 3-pointer for the Islanders and a Privateer followed with a turnover as the horn sounded to set up the overtime period.
Rashawn Thomas led Texas A&M-Corpus Christi with game-high marks of 22 points and four rebounds to go with a team-best eight rebounds. He was one of four Islanders to finish in double figures offensively as Martinez scored 15, Joseph Kilgore had 13 and South added 10. Amin and Kilgore shared game-high assist honors with four apiece and paced Texas A&M-Corpus Christi with a pair of steals each.
2017 Southland Conference Men’s Basketball All-Tournament Team
Tournament MVP: F – Erik Thomas, New Orleans
G – Christavious Gill, New Orleans
F – Leon Gilmore III, Stephen F. Austin
G – Cole Martinez, Texas A&M – Corpus Christi
F – Rashawn Thomas, Texas A&M – Corpus Christi