It was a case of bad news/good news for the University of New Orleans men’s basketball team on Thursday evening in Lakefront Arena. Initially, the Privateers were heartbroken after falling to Southland Conference foe Southeastern Louisiana, 63-58. But as players huddled around a cell phone following the game, they learned Northwestern State posted a 72-67 win at Stephen F. Austin to keep the Privateers in sole possession of first place in the league standings.
The Privateers’ loss, combined with the Demons’ road victory, gives UNO its first conference crown since sharing the Sun Belt title in 1996-97. Despite dropping its second consecutive game and falling to 17-11 overall and 12-5 in league play, New Orleans will have a chance to win the SLC title outright when the Privateers travel to Thibodaux, La., on Saturday to close out the regular season against Nicholls State. Tipoff for that game is slated for 3 p.m.
“This has to be one of the absolute craziest nights of my life,” UNO head coach Mark Slessinger said afterward. “I don’t know if I’ve ever had a range of emotions like this. We lost tonight to a good Southeastern Louisiana team that played very, very well down the stretch, but in the end I’m so proud of our team. The way a lot of the other games ended, it just didn’t happen tonight. But, we had built enough of a margin over the course of this long Southland Conference marathon to be able to win tonight. There’s no other way.
“This is a run over a course of an entire season. In a year in which this league is as balanced as I’ve ever seen it, and I’ve been in this thing since 2000. What an amazing night. I’m so happy for our students, our staff, our faculty and our alumni. What a great night. The University of New Orleans is a champion and the city of New Orleans is a champion.”
As a team, the Privateers shot 44.9 percent from the field (22-of-49) and held the Lions to a 40.0 mark (22-of-55), but Southeastern Louisiana connected at a .520 clip in the second half (13-of-25) including a 4-of-8 showing from beyond the 3-point arc. Three of those treys came in the final two minutes.
Leading 47-36 with 10:57 to play, New Orleans managed just three field goals the rest of the way yet still clung to a 58-52 advantage with 2:07 to go in regulation. From there, Jabbar Singleton opened the 3-point barrage with a trey to make it a 58-55 contest with 1:51 on the clock. Following a UNO turnover, Southeastern Louisiana’s Davon Hayes sandwiched back-to-back 3-pointer around a Privateers miss and the Lions capped the scoring on a pair of free throws by Marlain Veal.
“We just had untimely turnovers in the backcourt,” Slessinger said. “They were uncharacteristic turnovers where we didn’t handle the press. We were careless with the ball, we took some bad shots and, to their credit, they hit three 3s in a row. Two of them were as heavily contested as we could contest them and we defend the 3 better than anyone in the league. They just made two incredible shots.
“We turned the ball over and gave them an opportunity to do that. We’re disappointed in that. I should have coached better at the end of the game. I take accountability and responsibility for that. There’s a lot that we can continue to improve on and get better at. We still haven’t played our best game yet. Hopefully, we can do that on Saturday and we can play better than that once we get to Katy.”
Junior forward Makur Puou led the Privateers offensively with 13 points while the forward tandem of senior Erik Thomas and junior Travin Thibodeaux added 10 each. Thibodeaux paced UNO with nine rebounds and three steals, and Thomas headlined the unit with six assists and two blocked shots to go with seven rebounds and a pair of steals.
Southeastern Louisiana scored eight of the game’s first 10 points to runout to a six-point lead, but neither team could gain control of the contest early on as the teams battled to ties of 11-, 19- and 21-all. The Privateers created some breathing room with a 6-0 run late in the first half and went into the locker room at the break up 27-23.
A Veal 3-pointer opened the second-half scoring and the Lions chipped a 35-28 UNO lead down to a pair at 36-34 with 13:41 remaining in the ballgame. UNO appeared to take control of the game with an 11-2 run over the next 2:47 to take an 11-point lead before going cold shooting. The Privateers were just 3-of-10 from the field, 1-for-4 from the free throw line – including two misses on the front of 1-and-1 opportunities – and committed seven turnovers the rest of the way.
“We’re going to go to Nicholls in less than 48 hours and play a tough team that can shoot the ball like nobody else in our league,” Slessinger added. “They shoot the most 3s of anyone in the conference. We’re going to have to guard and we’re going to have to play at a high level, but we’re excited for the challenge of trying to win the outright championship and the No. 1 seed in the tournament. The double bye is great. We’ve got to win two games to get to the NCAA Tournament. We want to win the championship outright, continue to play at a high level, get a win and have some momentum going into the tournament.”
Veal led Southeastern Louisiana with game-high totals of 23 points and six assists to go with a team-leading five assists. Hayes was next offensively with 10 points, James Currington paced the Lions with eight rebounds, and the tandem of Veal and Dominic Nelson blocked a pair of shots.
Following Saturday’s game at Nicholls, the Privateers will return to action on Friday, March 10, when they open play in the Southland Conference Tournament in the Leonard E. Merrell Center in Katy, Texas. UNO already clinched one of the coveted double-bye positions and can play as either the No. 1 or No. 2 seed depending on how the final day of the regular season plays out. For tickets to the SLC Tournament, which is slated to run from March 8-11 in Katy, Texas, click here.