After going 21 years between NCAA tournament appearances, the UNO men’s basketball team did not even have to wait 21 seconds to find out where it was headed when the bracket was revealed Sunday afternoon.
The very first pairing shown was the Privateers (20-11) versus Mount St. Mary’s (19-15) in a First Four game at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday in Dayton, Ohio — causing an immediate eruption from the players and fans at the viewing party on campus. The winner will face defending national champion (and No. 1 overall seed) Villanova on Thursday in an East regional game in Buffalo, New York.
“It caught me in shock because it was so quick,” senior guard Christavious Gill said. “The (CBS selection) show had just come on. I looked at it, and then I jumped up with all the excitement for me, my teammates, my coaches, the university and the city, everybody. I’m just really excited about the opportunity.”
Some teams get angry when they are slotted in the First Four, figuring they aren’t really in the tournament unless they win their play-in game. Not UNO.
The celebration was loud and proud, with players dancing and hugging one another while a brass band began playing nonstop music. About 200 fans showed up to celebrate with the team, creating a wild atmosphere at a school that has not had cause to party like this about athletics in a long time.
“I’m just happy to be there,” Gill said. “We’ll take it any way it comes. It may be an advantage. We may get the pressure off us in the first game, and we’ll be ready for the second game.”
Gill was one of the few Privateers who knew anything about Mount St. Mary’s, an Emmitsburg, Maryland, school with a student enrollment of slightly more than 2,000. Mount St. Mary’s, like UNO in the Southland, won the regular-season and tournament titles in the Northeast Conference.
KATY, Texas — After waiting 21 years between NCAA tournament berths, why not wait an extra f…
Unlike UNO, the Mountaineers started 1-11 against a rough schedule of power conference teams before getting into league play.
“I watched them play in their conference championship game (a 71-61 victory against Saint Francis of Pennsylvania),” Gill said. “It should be a pretty good matchup.”
The logistics will not be easy for UNO, but they never are for the teams that play Tuesday. Coach Mark Slessinger still had not figured out whether the Privateers would practice before flying Monday to Dayton, but he has experience in that department.
When he was an assistant coach at Northwestern State, his team played in the first play-in game in 2001, beating Winthrop — a fact he pointed out four times in one sentence after UNO’s overtime victory Saturday against Texas A&M-Corpus Christi in the Southland tournament championship game.
“There’s no better basketball city for the NCAA tournament than Dayton,” he said. “It is a phenomenal place and one of the absolute best basketball venues in America. I’ll never forget: You walk in there, and that bright blue carpet is laid out, it’s clean and it’s just a different feeling than the other places I’ve been in the NCAA tournament.”
UNO celebrated hard after beating Corpus on Saturday night, but to a man, the Privateers insisted they would be ready Tuesday. After a postgame dinner at Whataburger in Katy, Texas, the got back to their team hotel around 3 a.m. before heading back to New Orleans on Sunday morning.
“Our goals were very clear when they set them at the beginning of the year,” Slessinger said. “We wanted to win the league, we wanted to go the NCAA tournament and we wanted to win games there. We’re just not going to show up. We’re not happy showing up. We’ve got a goal, and we’ve trained all year to go to win the next 40 minutes — not to just show up.”
After winning the rebounding battle in the Southland championship game 40-25 against a physical Corpus team, the Privateers like how they match up with Mount St. Mary’s, which is not as big or athletic as the Islanders.
“Despite our size, we’re real physical,” senior guard Nate Frye said. “That’s what got us a championship. I know one thing won’t change: We’ll always play hard and play together, be smart and pass up good shots for great shots like Coach talks about. We’re going to get this win.”
Slessinger was thankful for the Southland tournament format that gave UNO a double bye to the semifinals, saving the Privateers’ legs a bit because they had to win only two games in two days. If they had played three times, the turnaround to Tuesday’s matchup with rested Mount St. Mary’s would have been much tougher. Mount St. Mary’s won its title game Tuesday in a format that spaced out its three games over seven days.
UNO had a case to avoid the First Four. Its RPI was better than five of the other teams in the field, and only four automatic qualifiers participate in those games. But late-season losses to Southeastern Louisiana and Northwestern State sealed the Privateers’ fate, in Slessinger’s view.
“I thought we would be in a play-in game,” he said. “Those losses were too much to overcome in the eyes of the committee, but that’s OK. We’re excited to go play. I’m undefeated in Dayton.”
Photos: What a story! UNO Privateers win Southland, punch ticket to NCAA tournament
The UNO Privateers, for the first time since 1996, will play in the NCAA tournament after knocking off Texas A&M-Corpus Christi in overtime in the Southland Conference tournament championship Saturday in Katy, Texas.