After starting 4-0 in league play for the first time in 24 years, the UNO men’s basketball team looked more like its recent losing vintage for much of Thursday night.
When the Privateers woke up midway through the second half, they almost stole another victory.
Preseason Southland Conference favorite Sam Houston State jumped on UNO early and held on to win 70-68 at Lakefront Arena, but not without a tremendous fight. UNO trailed 56-42 before going on an 8-0 run to get within range. The Privateers pulled within one possession on Nate Frye’s 3-pointer and tied it on Travin Thibodeaux’s 3-point play at the 1:18 mark.
But Chris Galbraith scored as Sam Houston went back ahead 69-67, and UNO could not get the equalizer. Frye missed a go-ahead 3-pointer, and leading scorer Erik Thomas missed what would have been a tying free throw with 3.4 seconds left.
Thomas, who had hit his first 11 foul shots, was a little long on the last one after Sam Houston State called a timeout to ice him. Frye grabbed the rebound in the lane but was tied up when he brought the ball down, giving possession to the Bearkats on the alternate possession rule.
“I was just going through my regular routine,” Thomas said. “I was focused in and ready to knock it down. It just didn’t fall.”
Sam Houston State’s Aurimas Majauskas made one of two free throws with two seconds left to account for the final margin. UNO heaved a 65-foot shot at the buzzer that came up short.
The Bearkats (12-6, 3-2), who surprisingly dropped their first two conference games, won their third in a row.
UNO (9-7, 4-1), which had won five straight, still leads the Southland by a half-game over Lamar and Central Arkansas. The Privateers have the weekend off before traveling to Houston Baptist on Jan. 19.
“We’re a championship-level team,” UNO coach Mark Slessinger said. “In a lot of ways this was a tournament-level game. The two teams were going at each other. We fought back and had two or three opportunities and had some things not go our way.”
Thomas, who averaged 20.3 points entering the game, led all scorers with 25 points. Thibodeaux added nine points, 11 rebounds and seven assists.
Galbreath paced Sam Houston State with 21 points off the bench, his second highest total of the season.
Sam Houston penetrated UNO’s zone for easy baskets repeatedly in the first half, while the Privateers struggled to get good looks against the Bearkats’ tight man-to-man defense.
Sam Houston State took control early, 16-8, with a 9-2 run that featured an uncontested dunk, a lay-up in transition and a tip-in. The Bearkats appeared headed for an easy victory, but UNO, which was outrebounded 15-12 in the first half, turned up the intensity and finished with a 32-27 edge on the boards.
“We’re definitely the tougher team,” Thomas said. “We just started our run too late, and we didn’t have enough time to get a lead. It came down to one possession.”
The slim margin came from the 3-point line, where Sam Houston State hit 5 of 15 while UNO sank only 3 of 13. Guard Christavious Gill went 2 for 12.
Still, the Privateers had their chance to tie it at the end, and then to win it on Frye’s rebound.
“We had our best scorer at the line for two, and he had just won a game at Lamar doing the same thing,” Slessinger said. “Then we make a hustle play and got unlucky they didn’t call a foul. They called a jump ball instead. But each possession is of equal value, and they all add up the same at the end of the night.”