KATY, Texas — After waiting 21 years between NCAA tournament berths, why not wait an extra five minutes? And then why not wait a little longer through a replay review that forced an extra inbounds pass before the real dancing could begin?
In a tense, tightly contested game, UNO outlasted Texas A&M-Corpus Christi 68-65 in overtime of the Southland Conference tournament championship game Saturday night, punching its ticket to the Big Dance seven years after it considered dropping down to a lower division of athletic competition.
“This has been an amazing story,” said sixth-year coach Mark Slessinger, who still was wearing the net the Privateers cut down in their postgame celebration. “It has been a story of rebirth, it’s a story of renaissance, it’s a story of commitment of when guys come together for the common purpose of playing for the love of the game and playing for the love of each other and playing for our university in a city that we absolutely 100 percent adore and love, that some magic stuff can happen.”
It was never clear one way or the other what would happen in this game. Neither team led by more than four points from the 17:00 mark of the second half until the end of overtime, but the top-seeded Privateers out-toughed the second-seeded Islanders after falling behind by 10 in the first half, outrebounding them 40-25 and getting 21 second-chance points to the Islanders’ two.
When the Islanders were finally out of chances, UNO senior guard Nate Frye picked up the ball and tossed it toward the rafters of the Merrell Center before the floor became one big mosh pit of celebrating Privateers as they hugged and tackled one another.
“It was unreal,” senior guard Christavious Gill said. “I would watch on TV and see other teams win tournaments when I was in junior high, and I was like, 'Man, I want to be here one day.' It’s a dream come true. It’s a surreal situation.”
Fellow senior Tevin Broyles did his part to keep overtime exciting. After scoring on a beautiful spin move and hitting two free throws to put the Privateers ahead 67-63, he had a careless turnover and missed a pair of free throws that allowed the Islanders to cut their deficit to 67-65 when they hit only 2 of 4 foul shots.
Broyles missed a third straight free throw with 25.8 seconds left before sinking one to give UNO a three-point cushion. Islanders star forward Rashawn Thomas then missed a contested 3-pointer in the final 5 seconds, a follow-up layup was off target, too, and the ball went out of bounds off the Islanders.
UNO players thought the game was over and started celebrating, but a replay review determined eight-tenths of a second remained. UNO’s Erik Thomas lofted a long pass that Frye tipped to run out the clock, setting off a celebration no one was going to stop.
“It’s a blessing,” Thomas said. “We just played so tough and wanted it so bad and we were able to accomplish it tonight. It’s a big story for people to tell 10 years from now, 20 years from now to our kids and our family. 'Hey, we went dancing, we went to the NCAA tournament,' and not a lot of people can say that.”
UNO, which had not had a winning record in conference play since before Hurricane Katrina, proved it was the best team in the Southland in 2016-17, surviving an outstanding effort from the Islanders in a game eerily reminiscent of their regular-season meeting on New Year’s Eve at Lakefront Arena.
That time, the Privateers won by one point after the score was tied at 61 at the end of regulation. This time, the score was tied at 60.
As usual, UNO won with a total team effort. Broyles led the Privateers with 15 points. Thomas, the Southland Player of the Year and tournament MVP, contributed 14 points and 11 rebounds. Christavious Gill and Michael Zeno added 10 points, with Frye scoring nine and Travin Thibodeaux eight.
After taking a quick 6-0 lead, UNO struggled to hit any shots for the rest of the first half, missing its first seven 3-point attempts while the Islanders blocked five inside. The Privateers finished the half 10 of 32 from the floor.
In contrast, the Islanders connected on several contested shots, going 13 of 23. Suddenly torrid reserve Cole Martinez, no factor for most of the season, sank all three of his trey attempts.
UNO was fortunate to be down only seven at halftime. The Islanders went too early while holding for the last shot, and after the Privateers grabbed the miss, Frye sank a 3 at the buzzer to make the score 33-26.
“That was the whole momentum swing,” Slessinger said. “I got on him at the meeting before and was yelling at him, and I don’t know if I was using all the Lord’s English. He needed to be ready to shoot it and knock it down. He said, ‘I got you,’ and then he drained it. It took the lid off the rim for us and relaxed us.”
UNO thought it had pulled within six, but officials changed a late Islanders 2 to a 3 upon review.
The Privateers were a different team in the second half. Gill hit a deep 3 on his first shot. Broyles intentionally inbounded a ball off a defender’s back, grabbed it and converted a three-point play under the basket. Pretty passing, including a no-look bullet from Thibodeaux to Zeno for a dunk, led to several easy buckets.
But the Islanders, led by Thomas, the Southland Conference’s top scorer, kept the pressure on the entire way. Thomas finished with 22 points and blocked four shots. Guard Joseph Kilgore hit several mid-range pull-ups for 13 points. And Martinez was unconscious, missing only one of the six 3-pointers he attempted — a potential game-winner that Gill contested at the end of regulation.
“The sportsmanship was phenomenal throughout by both teams,” Slessinger said. “It was as hard-fought a game as could be played, and a very clean game. It was a great basketball night.”
On Sunday, the Privateers will learn when and where their next night of basketball will take place — in the NCAA tournament.