Privateers fall to Mount St. Mary’s in NCAAs
DAYTON, Ohio – It was the feel-good story of the college basketball season. It was a year of renaissance and resurgence. It was a year that a once proud program put itself back on the map. On Tuesday afternoon, the clock struck midnight on the University of New Orleans men's basketball team as the Privateers dropped a 67-66 contest to Mount St. Mary's in the 2017 NCAA First Four in University of Dayton Arena.
While the day was ultimately about the game itself, it represented the long, arduous and ultimately successful journey for a program that has been run through the ringer over the last dozen years.
The tough times came in Hurricane Katrina and the devastation the story had on the entire Gulf South region, the significant drop in enrollment and the financial strain it put on the overall operations of the University, a proposed move from Division I and the loss of prominent student-athletes and successful staff members. Although positive news may have been hard to recognize at times, it began six seasons ago with the hiring of Mark Slessinger as head coach. It followed with the decision of former UNO President Dr. Peter Fos to reverse a drop from the NCAA's top level of competition and the later the invitation to join the Southland Conference.
It all came to a head in 2016-17 as the Privateers, despite being picked to finish ninth in the SLC by a vote of league coaches and predicted to come in 10th by the conference's sports information directors, won the regular-season Southland title and punched their ticket to the NCAA Men's Basketball Championship with a 68-65 overtime victory against Texas A&M-Corpus Christi last Saturday in the SLC Tournament championship game.
The Privateers may have come one point shy of writing the next chapter in their success story, but the overall attitude of the team after the game was somber yet hopeful as a foundation has been laid that will no doubt allow bigger and better to be built upon it.
"I can't be more proud of where our program has come in a short time," Slessinger said. "To be able to go through the adversity we've been through is 100 percent credit to our student-athletes, to their commitment to the university, their commitment to our city and their commitment to each other.
"And it's been a blessing to coach these guys and for us to move our program forward to a level that many didn't envision outside of our locker room. And so for that, my gratitude and my sincere thanks goes to our student-athletes."
UNO trailed for more than 30 minutes, but rallied from a nine-point deficit early in the second half to battle back and take a 64-63 lead with 1:48 to play. From there, however, the Mountaineers got a jumper from Junior Robinson and a pair of free throws by Miles Wilson before senior guard Nate Frye sank a pair of opportunities from the charity stripe with 34 seconds to play to provide what proved to be the final points of the game.
The Privateer defense forced a miss the next time down the court and called timeout after senior forward Erik Thomas secured the rebound with 2.9 seconds remaining. The inbound pass, however, was stolen by The Mount's Chris Wray and the Mountaineers were able to run out the clock.
In defeat, New Orleans concludes the year 20-12 overall. Mount Saint Mary's, meanwhile, improved to 20-15 and advances to take on top-seeded and defending national champion Villanova on Thursday in Buffalo, N.Y.
"We started the engine on the car, now the car is moving," Frye said. "We've got to pick up speed and keep building off what we did this year and I, personally, would say I'm proud of what we accomplished as well. We established the building blocks of what was broken down from Katrina and I know Coach Slessinger will do everything to keep it going, keep it building and the guys will be eager to step up.
"Some had to wait their time. But now they've seen and hopefully they've learned from what we've done, throw out the bad and kept the good, and can keep this program going in the direction that it should go. I'm upset about the loss. I wanted to play Villanova so, so, so bad. Things happen for a reason and I think New Orleans is going to be good. Just watch out for us."
As a team, the Privateers shot 53.7 percent from the field (29-of-54), including a 16-of-24 showing in the second half (.667), and led in virtually every statistical category. UNO had 29 field goals to Mount St. Mary's 25, held a 28-25 rebounding advantage and posted 10 steals to the Mountaineers' six. In addition, New Orleans outscored Mount St. Mary's in the paint 42-22, scored 24 points off 16 turnovers to its opponent's 19 off 14 miscues, held an 18-3 edge in fast-break points and the reserves outscored their counterparts 27-12.
The difference in the game came from beyond the 3-point arc as The Mount connected on 10-of-19 shots from downtown (.526) to UNO's 1-of-9 showing (.111). Mount St. Mary's 14 assists were two more than the Privateers' tally and committed five fewer personal fouls than New Orleans' 18.
Frye led three Privateers in double figures offensively with 18 points – all but one of which came in the second half – while Thomas had 12 and junior forward Travin Thibodeaux added 11. Thomas and senior guard Tevin Broyles shared team-high rebounding honors with eight each, Broyles led the squad with three assists and junior forward Makur Puou had both of UNO's blocked shots. Senior guard Christavious Gill, who scored eight points to go with two assists and a rebound, led all players with four steals.
"The big difference in the game was we had a slow start and that really hurt us," Thomas said. "We dug a little hole for ourselves. But we just slowly came back into the game. We got our groove back. We just weren't able to finish the game out. Congrats to Mount Saint Mary's. They played hard and it was a great game."
The Privateers scored the first four points of the game on buckets by Thomas and Gill and led by as many as five at 10-5 just over four minutes into the contest. The Mountaineers answered with a 10-0 run and, following a free throw by Frye, got a 3-pointer by Miles Wilson to go up 18-11. UNO scored the next four to get to within three at the 9:50 mark, and it remained a three-point affair at 22-19 with 6:16 to go in the opening stanza. Mount St. Mary's swung momentum with nine unanswered points to go up 30-19, but the Privateers scored 10 of the final 12 points of the frame to go into the locker room down 32-29.
The Mountaineers opened the second half with a 7-2 run to go up by nine only to see New Orleans storm back with eight in a row to make it 40-39 with 14:57 to play. After falling behind by six 2:18 later, the Privateers rallied to tie the score at 49-49 and again at 51-all but could not take the lead until Gill's free throws inside of two minutes to set up the late-game dramatics.
"We've seen about every style of play you could have," Slessinger said. "The biggest issues was we never got into a groove defensively where we could keep them in what I feel like is our main fundamental areas. We didn't ball pressure well to the second half. There were a lot of things that we did that were outside of us and outside of what made us a really good championship team out of the Southland.
"It's unfortunate because I think that everybody didn't get to see our best game tonight. I sure would have loved to have an opportunity to take it to the next round to see if we could play that perfect game."
Robinson led all Mount Saint Mary's with a game-high 23 points while Wilson was next with 17 and complete a double-double with 11 rebounds. Wilson shared game-high assist honors with four assists, and the Mountaineer duo also share team-high steal honors with two apiece.
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