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.