UNO wins

UNO Privateers basketball coach Mark Slessinger hoists the Southland Conference Tournament championship trophy with his team Saturday. The Privateers defeated Texas A&M-Corpus Christi in overtime to earn their first NCAA tournament berth since 1996. (Photo via UNO)

DAYTON, OHIO—When UNO tips off with Mount St. Mary’s on Tuesday night, no one will be prouder than former president Peter Fos.

Two months after taking over as president in 2012, he reversed the schools’ former decision to stop playing Division I sports, a plan that first entailed going to Division III before being amended to Division II.

“It was probably the most difficult decision and the most visible decision I made,” he said. “I made decisions about faculty and about facilities that only affected a certain amount of people. This affected the whole community.”

Foss retired in January 2016, but the ultimate payoff came when the Privateers won the Southland Conference tournament, advancing to their first NCAA tournament in 21 years. He was there tournament in Katy, Texas, and will be in Dayton.

The viewing party on campus for the NCAA selection show drew at least 200 people, galvanizing the campus in a way that would have been impossible if the Privateers had de-emphasized athletics.

“It was the right thing to do, which in my heart I knew, but this is the validation I did the right thing,” he said. “Too often people equate quality of a university with the athletic program. We have a great university here and a great academic program, but no one talked about us when we were going to leave Division I. Staying in Division I put us back on the map, and having this success, which is quicker than I thought it was going to happen, is exactly the reason why we stayed Division I.”

Fos said he dedicated $1 million dollars to the athletic program in his first year to get the scholarship numbers back up to a Division I level, but since then the athletic department has funded itself with no help from the university.

“I never made any cuts across the university to help athletics,” he said. “But to be honest with you, it would have been worth it if we did for the marketing and the exposure and the recognition.”

SMALL BALL

The first thing UNO’s Christavious Gill noted when UNO learned it would play Mount St Mary’s was that, for once, he would play against a guy his own size.

Mountaineers guard Junior Robinson, 5-feet-5, is the shortest starter in Division I. Gill, generously listed at 5-8, is not much taller.

“It’s going to be a pretty good matchup,” Gill said. “I’m looking forward to it.”

Robinson, a junior, averages 14.1 points and 2.9 assists in 33.1 minutes. He scored 22 points in the Northeast Conference championship game against Saint Francis of Pennsylvania and sank 5 of 6 3-pointers in a loss at Big 12 tournament champion Michigan.

“Junior is an inspiration to all of us,” Mount St. Mary’s coach Jamion Christian said. “You look at him, he’s worked really hard to get up to 165 pounds. He’s a special player because he’s got enormous heart.”

Gill, a senior, averages 11.6 points and 2.7 assists in 31.7 minutes. He hit five 3-pointers at Tulsa and combined for five treys in two games at the Southland tournament.

Last year, he averaged a team-best 14.8 points. He averaged 12.3 points as a sophomore.

“I can’t wait to play,” he said. “I’m excited about this opportunity.”

ONE CHANGE

UNO coach Mark Slessinger continued to talk about his love affair with Dayton Tuesday—he was part of a victory in the first-ever play-in NCAA tournament game here in 2001 when he was an assistant at Northwestern State—but with one reservation.

On selection Sunday, he talked about the beautiful blue carpet inside the University of Dayton Arena, saying it made him feel good the second he entered the building.

When he arrived Tuesday, he found out the color scheme had changed. The carpet is black now.

“I was looking for the blue carpet,” he said. “I don’t know why they changed it.”

Otherwise, he could not have been happier.

“To play a like-level team that is also a conference champion and a tournament champion on a neutral court, on national TV and be the first game of the entire tournament, is pretty awesome,” he said. “No disrespect, World Cup, but this is the world’s greatest sporting event. We couldn’t be happier to be a part of it.”

NO TIME

UNO’s schedule since winning the Southland tournament left little time for practice.

The Privateers’ workout at the University of Dayton Arena on Monday afternoon was the only full practice they will get. The NCAA limits teams to a 20-minute shootaround on the day of the game.

The Privateers had a team meeting on Sunday night after finding out their opponent, then had to arrive at the loading dock outside Lakefront Arena at 9:15 a.m. Monday to get on the bus to the airport.

The hectic period left Slessinger in a different kind of bind.

“I still have a dirty suit,” he said. “I’ve got to figure out how to get a suit cleaned between now and tomorrow night. I’m going to need some help.”

LAGNIAPPE

For the second time in three days, the UNO players received a huge compliment from a media member. Mike Lopresti, an award-winning journalist now working for NCAA.com, told Slessinger after UNO’s interview session that UNO’s players shaking the hands of every media member in the room was an all-time first for him. A Houston Chronicle writer tweeted the exact same thing after the Southland tournament. … UNO, which outrebounded Texas A&M-Corpus Christi 40-25 on Saturday, should have a huge edge in that department. The Privateers are plus 3.9 for the year while the Mountaineers are minus-7.3.