UNO men’s basketball coach Mark Slessinger knew his team was facing a tall order going into Saturday’s regular-season finale, and he turned to his smallest player to get the job done.
With the winner earning a berth into the Southland Conference Tournament, the Privateers (10-19, 6-12) leaned on guard Christavious Gill to take down Northwestern State 97-86 at UNO Lakefront Arena on Saturday night.
The junior led the way for UNO with a career-high 38 points and tied the Lakefront Arena-record with eight 3-pointers on the night.
“This was a really big game for us and I didn’t want it to be our last,” Gill said. “We knew we had to win to make it to (the tournament) and I just went all out for our seniors.”
UNO now sets its sights on a first-round game against Southeastern Louisiana in the No. 5/No. 8 matchup in the SLC Tturnament, which begins Wednesday in Katy, Texas.
The Lions swept UNO in the two regular-season matchups between the schools over the last two weeks, and the Privateers are particularly looking forward to making up for the 61-60 loss it suffered to Southeastern at home on Thursday.
“I’m excited about it…they’ve been hot as a firecracker to end the year,” said Slessinger. “They’ve got some really talented kids and they’re very disciplined. we’re going to have to play our best game of the year to beat them.”
The Privateers came out firing to begin Saturday’s game and grabbed it’s first double-digit lead of the night following a three-point play by Erik Thomas that made the score 35-25 with 6:32 left before the half.
The Demons (8-20, 5-13) started tightening things up on the defensive end and managed to cut UNO’s lead down to 40-37 with 41 seconds left, but Gill’s fifth 3-pointer of the first half helped shift the momentum back to UNO and helped it take a 43-39 lead into halftime.
“Christavious played like he was 20 feet tall today, instead of 5-foot-6,” said Slessinger. “I’ve known that kid since he was in eighth grade, and what he lacks in height he makes up for in heart and guts.”
The Privateers picked up their hot shooting once again in the second half and went on a 17-4 run to extend its lead to 75-58 with nine minutes left in the game.
Northwestern made one last run to get back in the game and cut the Privateers lead to 80-74 with 4:59 left in the game.
But UNO responded with one last knockout punch, going on a 14-2 run that ended with a Thomas dunk that made the score 94-76 and effectively ended the Demons comeback bid.
The Privateers ended the night setting new season highs for field goal percentage (56.7) and 3-pointers made (11).
“This was an emotional game for me coming in, for sure,” said UNO senior forward Kevin Hill, who finished with 15 points in his final home game.
“(Gill) had an extremely gutsy performance tonight, and we just want to put a few more of those together and make a run in this tournament.”