UNO leading scorer Ezekiel Charles came up empty for 22 minutes on Saturday, missing the first seven shots he took against McNeese.
When he finally sank a 3-pointer with 17:44 left in the second half, the Privateers already were ahead, an indication of the teamwork that should carry them into Southland Conference title contention for the third consecutive year.
UNO never trailed, beating McNeese 79-66 at Lakefront Arena, and the Privateers (8-7, 3-1) ended the day a half-game back of first-place Sam Houston State in the league standings. That position near the top has become customary for them since the start of 2016-17 under coach Mark Slessinger.
They won the Southland regular season and tournament titles two years ago. They were in first place for a significant portion last year before a late-season slump.
They appear poised to make another run, having followed an opening-night loss at Abilene Christian with three straight victories. Despite being down two season-opening starters on Saturday, with post player Scott Plaisance joining point guard Lamont Berzat on the injury list, they handled McNeese from start to finish.
“Our team has got incredible resolve,” Slessinger said. “From day one they didn’t have any delusions that somebody was the clear-cut guy. They knew there were going to be multiple guys throughout the game that were going to be the MVP of our team.”
Charles became one of them, grabbing a team-high 8 rebounds and draining a pivotal 3-pointer with 6:01 left after McNeese (5-12, 1-3) pulled within 63-57.
Bryson Robinson was the first, hitting a series of tough shots in the first half against his favorite opponent. A year after erupting for a career-high 31 points at McNeese, he hit a series of tough shots in the first half on his way to a team-high 17 points. He knocked down a face-up jumper off the dribble and a 3-pointer on consecutive possessions, hit another trey a few minutes later and banked in a 3 with one second left to make the score 30-25.
“We are extremely confident about our chances,” Robinson said. “I feel like we can win it all.”
Damion Rosser pumped in 11 of his 15 points after the break as the Privateers, who had been outscored by 37 in the second half of their first three conference games, did not let down this time.
“I’m the energy guy,” he said. “I just wanted to play with more energy in the second half than I did in the first.”
Freshman forward Jahmel Myers was a factor in both halves, scoring a season-best 13 points on 5-of-7 shooting. His day included a pretty running back shot that he turned into a 3-point play after being fouled.
While Charles, UNO’s only double-figures scorer for the year, finished 2 of 10, the other four starters combined to go 18 of 31.
The most spectacular of those baskets was an alley oop from Robinson to Rosser that gave UNO its largest lead, 73-57, with 4:23 left.
“We run that play a lot, but we hadn’t run it in about five games,” Rosser said. “When coach called my number, I knew to give B Rob the pass because he would give it back to me.”
If you are in to omens, UNO was coming off overtime wins in its second and third conference games against Houston Baptist and at Lamar. During its championship season two years ago, it won in OT in its second and third games, too, with the latter one also at Lamar.
Slessinger was more interested in the turnover totals than that fact. The Privateers forced 18 turnovers but committed 17, numbers that nearly mirrored their season totals.
“Hats off to our team for how hard they play,” he said. “We continue to be able to turn people over. If we could ever figure out how to not give it back, we’d have a chance to be a lot better.”