KATY, Texas — The last time UNO played Texas A&M-Corpus Christi in the Southland Conference tournament, the Privateers won an overtime thriller to capture their first conference championship and NCAA tournament bid in 21 years.
While Wednesday night’s game at the Merrell Center wasn’t nearly as exciting, it was the first of four big steps UNO had to take if it wants to defend its conference championship.
Damion Rosser scored 17 points and Ezekiel Charles added 15 as the Privateers jumped out to a big lead and held on late to advance to the tournament quarterfinals with an 83-76 win.
“I couldn’t be more proud of our team spirit,” UNO coach Mark Slessinger said. “I know that is kind of an old-school term, but they played with passion and gave everything they had tonight to advance and survive into the next round.”
Entering as the No. 5 seed, the Privateers (15-15) will have to win four games in four days to win the tournament. The second leg is Thursday against No. 4 seed Sam Houston State.
Against the Islanders, the Privateers didn’t waste any time getting things started. UNO jumped out to a double-digit lead midway through the first half and led by as many as 16 before halftime.
“That really set the tone when we came out hot,” Rosser said “That’s probably the highest percentage we’ve had all year and the highest scoring half all year.”
UNO shot 68 percent in the first half, going into the locker room with a 43-29 lead. Charles led the way with 11 points, including three 3-pointers.
“We were all locked in and pumped because we knew what we had to do,” Charles said.
A&M-Corpus Christi (11-18) drew to within four in the final minute but could not overcome UNO’s early surge. The Islanders were led by Joe Killgore’s game-high 29 points, while Kareem South added 16.
“(UNO) played with reckless abandon like they had nothing to lose and we were just a step late” A&M-Corpus Christi coach Willis Wilson said.
“They hit some shots that they don’t normally take, and for us it boiled down to not being comfortable and never getting into a rhythm.”
UNO outrebounded A&M-Corpus Christi 38-26 and outscored the Islanders 32-24 in the paint. For the game, the Privateers shot 57 percent from the field.
“We had multiple guys step up and make plays,” Slessinger said. “We tweaked a few things and changed our gears a little bit. I think it helped us get off to a good start.”
The Privateers have struggled since Travin Thibodeaux was suspended for an unspecified disciplinary matter last month. Thibodeaux was UNO’s leader in points, rebounds, assists, blocks and steals.
He was replaced by a group effort Wednesday. Rosser and Charles were aided by 13 points from Scott Plaisance and 11 from Lamont Berzat, who also added eight assists.
Now the Privateers will shift their attention to Sam Houston State (18-13), a team UNO lost to 57-54 on Feb. 21, but played without four of their five starters. Everyone but Thibodeaux is back.
“We will have more than our work cut out for us,” Slessinger said. “I know our guys will be excited about the opportunity. It will be a popping gym for 5 p.m. on a Thursday.”