UNO to play in ‘First Four’ versus Mount St. Mary’s

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Trahan: UNO basketball success conjures up memories of key figures and a proud past

March Madness will start with Cinderella – the University of New Orleans.

The Privateers will open the First Four on Tuesday at 5:40 p.m. CDT against Mount St. Mary’s in Dayton, Ohio.

The UNO-Mount St. Mary’s winner will advance to Buffalo, N.Y. , for a first-round game against the East Region’s top seed, defending national champion Villanova, on Thursday.

The Privateers (20-11) won the regular season and tournament titles in the Southland Conference, defeating Texas A&M-Corpus Christi 68-65 in overtime Saturday night in Katy, Texas, for the tournament crown to wrap up its first NCAA appearance since 1996.

Mount St. Mary’s (19-15), located in Emmitsburg, Maryland, advanced by winning the Northeast Conference tournament title.

Tuesday’s game will be televised by truTV. The UNO radio broadcast will be available on WRBH 88.3 FM.

Villanova, Wisconsin and Virginia Tech – coached by former UNO coach Buzz Williams – are in the four-team pod in Buffalo

NEW ORLEANS MEN’S HOOPS TO TIPOFF MARCH MADNESS ON TUESDAY vs THE MOUNT
In their first NCAA Tournament in 21 years, the Privateers look to keep memorable season going

DAYTON, Ohio – It’s been a long time coming, but for the first time in 21 years, the University of New Orleans men’s basketball team will participate in the NCAA Tournament as the Privateers tipoff March Madness on Tuesday against Mount St. Mary’s in the University of Dayton Arena. The contest is slated to start at 5:40 p.m. and will be broadcast live on truTV.

In what has been a storybook season, the Privateers will look to add at least one more chapter when they square off against fellow 16 seed Mount St. Mary’s. The contest is the initial game of the NCAA First Four, making it the very first game of the 2017 NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship.

“It’s an unbelievable honor to be in Dayton,” UNO head coach Mark Slessinger said. “I was lucky enough to be an assistant coach at Northwestern State and play in the first-ever play-in game. Then it was a play-in game. It wasn’t called an opening round game. But it was one of the most special experiences that I’ve ever had in coaching.

“I want to be in this tournament. Our guys want to be in this tournament We didn’t care what seed we were. I love the opportunity. I love it for me, selfishly, and for our student-athlete to experience this. It’s not what it’s like at the other places. To play a like-level team that is also a conference champion and a tournament champion on a neutral court, on national television and be in the first game of this entire tournament – no disrespect to the World Cup, but this is the world’s greatest sporting event – is pretty cool. We couldn’t happier to be a part of it.”

New Orleans enters the NCAA First Four 20-11 overall and with a pair of trophies already in hand as the Privateers earned the Southland Conference’s regular-season crown with a 13-5 mark in league play and the SLC Tournament title courtesy of a 68-65 overtime victory against Texas A&M-Corpus Christi in the championship game on March 11 in Katy, Texas.

As a team, New Orleans is averaging 73.1 points, 35.9 rebounds, 15.8 assists, 7.8 steals and 3.1 blocks per game. Senior forward Erik Thomas leads the Privateers offensively with 19.5 points per game, followed by senior guards Christavious Gill at 11.6 and Nate Frye with a mark of 10.3. Thomas also paces the team with 7.8 rebounds and shared team-high steal honors with Gill and junior forward Travin Thibodeaux at 1.5 thefts per outing apiece. Thibodeaux leads the squad with 3.3 assists per game while junior forward Makur Puou headlines the defense with 1.3 blocked shots per contest.

New Orleans is connecting at a .471 clip from the field, hitting 801-of-1701 shots from the floor and 138-of-429 tries from beyond the 3-point arc (.322), while allowing opponents to shoot .439 overall (767-of-1747) and .310 from 3-point land (199-of-642). Privateer foes are averaging 69.3 points, 32.0 rebounds, 12.6 assists, 8.5 steals and 3.4 blocks heading into postseason play.

“We’re blessed and fortunate to be here,” Frye said. “We were at the Selection Show just waiting eargerly to see where we were going to play. We have no type of attitude about the First Four or playing to get in. We’re just excited to be here. Our hard work is paying off and we’re here to show the world what we can do.”

Mount St. Mary’s, meanwhile, heads to the postseason 19-15 on the year, winners of the Northeast Conference courtesy of a 14-4 league record and champions of the NEC Tournament with a 71-61 decision of St. Francis (Pa.) on March 7. After opening the year 1-11, the Mountaineers have won 19 of their last 22 games and enter the NCAAs with a four-game winning streak.

As a team, the Mountaineers are averaging 68.3 points, 30.3 rebounds, 11.1 assists, 6.2 steals and 4.0 blocks per game. Elijah Long is one of three players averaging double figures offensively with a team-best 15.4 points per game while Junior Robinson and Miles Wilson follow with respective scoring averages of 14.1 and 11.3. Chris Wray paces the squad in rebounding and blocked shots with 5.9 boards and 1.5 swats per outing while Long leads the way in assists and steals with 4.4 dimes and 1.6 thefts per contest.

Mount St. Mary’s is hitting 44.4 percent of its shots from the field, connecting on 831-of-1873 attempts, including a 246-of-690 showing from beyond the 3-point line (.357). The Mountaineer defense has allowed opponents to post a 44.8 shooting percentage (863-of-1925) and a 34.4 clip from 3-point land (183-of-532) and their foes are averaging 68.6 points, 37.6 rebounds, 11.1 assists, 6.3 steals and 2.8 blocks per game.

“Ironically, I watched the championship game of the Northeast Conference,” Slessinger said. “I watched them another time earlier a few weeks ago. I had a feeling that if we were in this position, they would be one of the teams we’d play. They’ve got a great team. They can play a style that is probably as polar opposite as there is to ours. If the [NCAA Selection] committee was playing making matchmaker scenarios, it if was a prize fight and they were putting styles against each other, they did a great job.

“They’re very, very good at what they do. They can create tempo. They can score in a lot of different ways. They’ve got some guys that, in my day, you would say they’ve got some motor scooters. They can move. They can get up and move. We’re going to have to defend at a high level to keep them from scoring and we’re going to have to not turn it over against them.”

Tuesday’s NCAA First Four showdown between New Orleans and Mount St. Mary’s is the first meeting between the two teams on the hardwood. UNO is 2-1 all-time against current members of the Northeast Conference with 1-0 showings vs St. Francis (Pa.) and Robert Morris and an 0-1 mark vs Farleigh Dickinson.

When the game tips off, the Mountaineers will become the fifth opponent the Privateers will face for the first time during the 2016-17 campaign. UNO is 3-1 in those games to date with wins of 103-67 against LaGrange College on Nov. 11 in Lakefront Arena, 90-63 vs Florida College on Nov. 25 in New Orleans and 70-54 win over Washington State on Dec. 3 in Pullman, Wash. The lone loss came at Tulsa on Nov. 19 when the Privateers fell, 77-68 in the Donald W. Reynolds Center.

The winner of Tuesday’s ballgame between the Privateers and Mountaineers will advance to play top-seeded and defending national champion Villanova on Thursday, March 16, in Buffalo, N.Y. New Orleans is the lone Southland Conference team and the only school from Louisiana chosen to participate in the 2017 NCAA Tournament.

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Lenny Vangilder

Lenny Vangilder

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Lenny has been involved in college athletics since the early 1980s, when he began working Tulane University sporting events while still attending Archbishop Rummel High School. He continued that relationship as a student at Loyola University, where he graduated in 1987. For the next 11 years, Vangilder worked in the sports information offices at Southwestern Louisiana (now UL-Lafayette) and Tulane; since then, he has remained involved in college sports. He works in television production of many college sporting events and served briefly as managing editor of New Orleans Metro Sports Magazine. Lenny also served for 11 years on the management…

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