Two games into the season, UNO men’s basketball coach Mark Slessinger didn’t recognize the team he was coaching.
UNO opened the season with double-digit losses on the road at Duquesne and Bowling Green, and he said his team wasn’t playing with the speed or ferocity that he saw from them all summer.
The Privateers (1-2) rediscovered their identity on Thursday night and ran away with a 94-57 win over Pensacola Christian College in the team’s home opener at the Lakefront Arena.
“It was much better, very similar to our second half at Duquesne,” Slessinger said. “I thought in the first half we had a couple lulls defensively where we lost focus, but we were able to come out with a lot of pop in the second half and set the tone for how that second half was going to go.”
Cameron Reed and Erik Thomas both scored a career-high 17 points to lead UNO in Thursday’s win, with Kevin Hill adding 16 points and 11 rebounds. Nate Frye also added 16 points and four rebounds on the night.
“I think we did a really good job of sharing the ball tonight and playing like a team,” Thomas said. “When we move the ball like that and keep everybody involved, we should be a tough offense to stop.”
Slessinger decided to go with forwards Michael Zeno — fresh off a career-high 23 points in his last game — and Kevin Hill as the two starting frontcourt players for Thursday’s game in an attempt to speed up the pace, and the Privateers’ athletic combo did just that.
The Privateers’ active defense gave Pensacola Christian (3-7) problems early, allowing UNO to get some easy baskets and jump out to a 29-11 lead less than 10 minutes into the game.
The Eagles fought to bring their deficit back to single digits late in the half, but UNO took a 40-26 lead into halftime.
“We talk about it a lot. We try to start practice fast, come out of timeouts fast to be the aggressor and get out and push it,” Slessinger said. “We’ve got a brutal stretch coming up (in the next four games), and we know that’s a key for us.”
The Privateers picked their defensive pressure up once again in the second half and got some major contributions from the bench, utilizing a 20-3 run early to jump out to a 60-33 lead.
UNO’s bench unit combined to score 50 points in the team’s first two games, but they matched that number in Thursday’s win, including 39 points in the second half.
“Those guys were huge for us tonight,” Hill said. “When they play with that much energy and score points the way they did, it gets the team excited and you saw that tonight. We have some talented guys coming off the bench, and they should be able to contribute like that every night.”
Guard Joel Thomas led Pensacola Christian with 19 points and three rebounds on 4-of-11 shooting. Corey Williams was the only other player on the team to reach double digits, finishing with 11 points and five rebounds.