THIBODAUX, La. – The University of New Orleans men's basketball team on Saturday clinched the outright
2016-17 Southland Conference championship with a 74-64 win over league rival Nicholls
before a road crowd that was largely filled with fans donning silver and blue.
Controlling its own destiny despite dropping a pair of heartbreaking contests the last two times out, UNO saw a double-digit lead get whittled down to three at 65-62 with two minutes left to play. From there, the heart of a champion emerged as the Privateers converted its lone field goal attempt the rest of the way and 7-of-10 free throws down the stretch to blow the game open and wrap up the regular season with a victory.
With the win, New Orleans' first in Thibodaux since 2001 and the team's first in Stopher Gym since 1991, the Privateers improve to 18-11 on the year and 13-5 in league play. The victory also gives UNO the No. 1 seed in the upcoming Southland Conference Tournament and guarantees the program a spot in the postseason for the first time since 1997. Nicholls, meanwhile, fell to 14-17 overall and 7-1l SLC action.
"It's been an amazing journey," UNO head coach Mark Slessinger said. "It's been a long, tough, grueling rebuild, but it's been an amazing journey for our staff, all of our student-athletes and all the guys that came before this from my first year up until today. Those first-year guys laid an incredible foundation. I keep going through all of them in my head. I'm so humbled and blessed to have all of those guys play for us and help rebuild our foundation as far as our culture, what would be accepted as our culture and how hard you had to work.
"Today is a great day. The University of New Orleans is a champion in basketball, but our University is a champion. Our faculty, staff and students are champions. Our alumni are champions and our incredible city is champions again. We're proud to have brought that home to where we feel it belongs. I couldn't be more humbled to represent all of those entities."
As a team, the Privateers connected on 46.3 percent of its shots from the field (25-of-54) while holding the Colonels to a .340 clip (18-53). UNO held a commanding 42-29 rebounding advantage, outscored Nicholls 34-24 in the paint and had 15 points off the bench to the home team's zero.
Senior forward Erik Thomas led four Privateers in double figures offensively with 21 points and posted the contest's lone double-double with a game-high 10 rebounds while handing out a team-best five assists. Senior guard Christavious Gill was next with 14 points, followed by senior guard Tevin Broyles with 12 and junior forward Travin Thibodeaux with 10. Junior guard Jorge Rosa had UNO's lone blocked shot and the only steal the Privateers were credited with, despite forcing 13 turnovers.
"They were great," Slessinger said of his seniors. "Nate [Frye] got a start back here at home in front of all of his family and friends. [Gill], Tevin and Nate were great. Erik was clutch down there at the end. He's got to be the Player of the Year. I don't know how anybody has been more valuable to a team and a program than Erik has been. He's been consistent every night and produced within the framework of what we're doing as a team. He's had a special year – one that doesn't come along very often.
"I'm very blessed to coach those guys. My mom and dad were here, which makes this even greater of an experience for me personally. For them to be able to share in this is something I'll never forget."
Neither team could gain control of the contest early on as the score was knotted at 14-all 6:31 into the ballgame. The two teams traded points over the next four possessions, before UNO went on a 9-1 run to take a 27-20 lead with 6:09 to go before halftime. The first-half advantage swelled to as many as eight at 32-24 just under two minutes later and the Colonels got to within five on a free throw by Jahvaughn Powell with 3:02 on the clock and a Powell layup at the 1:19 mark. It appeared as if that would be the margin at halftime, but Gill nailed a deep 3-pointer at the buzzer to send UNO into the locker room on top 35-27.
Gill's trey sparked a 9-0 run that spanned into the early portion of the second half to stake UNO to a 41-27 advantage with 15:55 to play in regulation. Nicholls, however, refused to go away quietly and rattled off 19 of the next 22 points over the next 4:53 to make it a two-point affair at 46-44. Undaunted, the Privateers responded with an 8-0 run to get the lead back to double figures and the advantage hovered between seven and 10 points until late in the final five minutes. A free throw by Ja'Danté Frye and a Bell 3-pointer got the Colonels to within three, and after falling behind 65-59, Nicholls saw Frye drain three consecutive shots from the charity stripe to set up the late-game dramatics.
Thomas gave UNO some breathing room with a 17-foot jumper with 1:40 to play and Gill followed with a pair of free throws to make it 69-62. Nicholls' Liam Thomas kept things interesting with a layup the next time down the court, but that was the Colonels' final tally of the day and the Privateers hit their free throws when they needed them the most to come out on top.
"[Nicholls is] capable of turning a 10-point lead into one or two in a couple of possessions, and that's exactly what happened," Slessinger added. "Our guys kept their composure and they came through. We made a couple of adjustments out of a timeout. We were able to grow the lead back a little bit, get back, force them into some misses, execute and make some clutch free throws down the stretch. Everybody contributed. Our bench was phenomenal. I just can't believe that after all this time that we're there. We're champions. This is a great day."
Powell led Nicholls with a game-high 23 points to go with a team-best three assists and four steals. Frye and Bell followed for the Colonels with respective scoring totals of 17 and 14, and Liam Thomas paced the squad with seven rebounds and four blocks.
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. As the league's top-seeded team, UNO will enjoy a double-bye and open tourney play on Friday, March 10, at 5 p.m. against an opponent yet to be determined.
That game is slated to be broadcast live on ESPN3 and the winner of the SLC Tournament will receive the league's automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. For tickets to the SLC Tournament, which is slated to run from March 8-11 in Katy, Texas, click here.