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New Orleans Privateers head coach Mark Slessinger addresses his team and fans during the announcement Sunday, March 12, 2017, that UNO will play Mt. St. Mary's in the first round of the NCAA basketball tournament. The team has not been to the NCAA tournament since 1996.

Advocate staff photo by SCOTT THRELKELD

There was a time when the crowds watching a UNO basketball game in Lakefront Arena weren't any larger than the crowd gathered at the Cove on campus Sunday for the Privateers' NCAA tournament selection show watch party.

But times have changed around UNO.

Boy, have they changed. Just ask athletic director Derek Morel.

"It's hard to describe where we were six years ago and where we've come," Morel said. "Today is bigger than just athletics. It's big for our university and our city."

That's why around 200 or so UNO diehards packed into the campus dining facility.

The wait to get back to the Big Dance took 21 years.

The wait to find out where they'd be dancing (Dayton, Ohio) and whom they would be dancing with (Mount St. Mary's) took just a few seconds, which is also about how long it took for senior guard Christavious Gill to react once he saw his school pop up on the giant screen.

"I was too shocked and too excited to even jump up," he said. "I sat there for about three seconds. My adrenaline was pumping. I was amazed."

Gill and his teammates knew their name would show up. They had assured themselves of that Saturday night with a thrilling 68-65 overtime victory over Texas A&M-Corpus Christi in Katy, Texas, to win the Southland Conference tournament and the automatic NCAA bid that comes with it.

While the March Madness-ending "One Shining Moment" video montage is still three weeks away, UNO's shining moment came Sunday as it brushed off two decades of men's basketball frustration.

Keith Veizer has sat through most of it. Veizer began teaching at UNO in 1971 and has been a fan of the team for 40 years.

He was in Little Rock back in 1996 when the Privateers punched their last ticket to the tournament. And he was in Katy on Saturday night.

So he surely wasn't about to miss being in the Cove.

"It's just a feeling of, 'We're back,' " he said.

The bid came just seven years after UNO, reeling from the effects of Hurricane Katrina, considered dropping down from Division I.

"This one is really special, just to know we have come so far and this rebuilding and how hard it's been," coach Mark Slessinger said.

For Slessinger, Selection Sunday was nothing new: He went to the NCAA tournament twice as an assistant at Northwestern State. So, for him, Sunday was more about the wide-eyed guys dressed in gray staring at the screen.

"The thing that I take away and that tucks away in my heart was watching their faces and knowing the sacrifices they have made and how hard they have worked," Slessinger said.

Count Gill among the ones who made a sacrifice. He remembers growing up in Alexandria, watching Selection Sunday on TV.

"I would always see teams like Duke and Kentucky on there, and I wanted to be there so bad so I worked hard," he said. "It was a big stage, so I wanted to play on it."

He remembers shooting on that goal his grandfather made with the wooden backboard in his backyard. Now he gets to play on the biggest stage of them all, at the same party as Kentucky and Duke and Villanova (which UNO would play Thursday if it wins Tuesday).

The feeling of Selection Sunday eclipses any big shot he has ever made.

"It feels way better," Gill said. "It shows more of a team effort. The whole team had a part in it. A buzzer beater is just one person, but this is everybody."

And that really does include everybody — from the players to the training staff to the school officials who decided to keep the program going.

Or, as senior forward and Southland Conference Player of the Year Erik Thomas, put it: "This is for our city."

And, of course, no New Orleans party is complete without a brass band. The Stooges Brass Band blasted the tune "Let's Go Get 'Em" as soon as the announcement was made.

And that's what the Privateers plan to do. The team isn't content with just making the tournament. It'll take a charter plane to Dayton on Monday — the first time the team has flown charter.

Normally, they just catch the bus, with Henry Thomas — or Mr. Henry, as they call him around UNO — at the wheel.

Mr. Henry was there Sunday, too.

"I was with them when they were down," he said. "They have gotten better and better. There is a lot of togetherness with this team that I haven't seen before."

He has been a good-luck charm of sorts for UNO. The team is undefeated on road games when he drives.

"He'll take us to the airport, I guarantee you that," Slessinger said. 

Then they'll head 900 miles to Ohio.

Yes, they are going a long way. But they've come a long way, too. 

Follow Rod Walker on Twitter, @rwalkeradvocate.