The littlest freshman in Division I men’s basketball came up huge for UNO.
Reserve Lamont Berzat, a 5-foot-6 Landry-Walker product, scored a career-high 15 points and fed teammate Michael Zeno for a pivotal dunk with 31 seconds left as the Privateers held on to beat Texas A&M-Corpus Christi 61-55 on Saturday at Lakefront Arena.
UNO (8-9, 5-1), the defending Southland Conference champion, moved into a tie with Nicholls State for first place, a half-game ahead of Southeastern Louisiana, Sam Houston State and Stephen F. Austin in a tightly contested league.
Without Berzat, the Privateers could have taken a damaging loss against the Islanders (4-11, 1-4), who bore little resemblance to the team that took UNO to overtime twice last year, including the Southland tournament championship game.
Normally a defensive role player, Berzat had scored 2 points in 36 minutes during the Privateers’ first five conference games. This time, he hit 5 of 6 field goals in 21 minutes when none of his teammates could connect on anything.
“People questioned when we signed him because of his size, but he’s heart over height every time,” coach Mark Slessinger said. “His heart helped to win us the game today.”
After putting the Islanders on ice in the first 10 minutes, holding them to 3 points, the Privateers went into their own deep freeze for an even longer stretch. They were an abysmal 7 of 31 from the floor when Slessinger called a timeout with 13:32 left following a lay-up that gave the Islanders a 32-27 lead.
That’s when Berzat went to work, hitting two 3-pointers in quick succession to end the team-wide slump.
“I’m always the sixth or seventh man off the bench to bring energy to the team, and today I struck with my scoring instead of my defense,” he said. “I was able to keep us in the game and push us forward towards this win.”
Leading scorer Travin Thibodeaux took over from there, converting a 3-point play and hitting a trey on consecutive possession as UNO went ahead for good, 43-41. The Privateers did just enough the rest of the way, getting some help from a missed free throw that would have tied the score at 55 with 1:01 left and another errant foul shot that would have made it 57-56 with 8.6 seconds remaining.
Thibodeaux grabbed the rebound and hit two free throws to seal the victory.
“We came out very tough and aggressive on defense,” he said. “I guess we kind of forgot about offense. When we got down, we knew we had to make plays. My teammates always believe in me, and that’s what willed us to come back.”
Thibodeaux scored a game-high 20 points with five rebounds and three blocks. Zeno added 11 points but was only 1 of 7 from the floor until his massive dunk for the final basket.
With the shock clock down to 5 seconds, Berzat realized he had to make a play and drove into the lane, finding Zeno for his only assist.
Finally, UNO executed to perfection in an ugly game that never felt secure after Corpus-Christi erased its early 14-3 deficit. The Islanders shot 39.6 percent with 19 turnovers, and the Privateers hit only 33.3 percent.
Slessinger substituted for all five starters twice in the first half because he wanted to wear down the depth-shy Islanders, giving Berzat his opportunity to excel.
“We obviously did not have our best effort today, but we came away with the win,” Slessinger said. “We’re back in a tie for first. It’s been not much time over a year and four weeks that the Privateers haven’t been in first place, which is a big step forward for our program.”