Just before the tipoff of UNO’s most significant home basketball game in 20 years, coach Mark Slessinger looked up at a largely empty Lakefront Arena and could have become angry or depressed.

Instead, Slessinger accepted the small crowd of 1,211 for what it was on a hopping night in New Orleans that featured the Muses parade and DeMarcus Cousins’ debut with the Pelicans at the Smoothie King Center. Then he watched his team decimate four-time defending champion Stephen F. Austin in an energy-driven performance that helped put the Privateers in the dream position they occupy now.

UNO, the outright regular-season Southland Conference champion, is 80 minutes away from an NCAA tournament berth that felt about 80 years away when Slessinger or any of his upperclassmen arrived. Given a double bye in the league’s format, the well-rested Privateers (18-11, 13-5) can reach the Southland tournament championship game by beating Sam Houston State (21-12, 10-8) at 5 p.m. Friday in Katy, Texas.

Sam Houston State, the No. 5 seed, got past No. 4 Houston Baptist on Thursday evening and will be playing its third game in three days in Katy. 

“It (winning the tournament) would just be amazing for all of us involved,” Slessinger said. “It would be the culmination of a lot of hard work and would be great confirmation for the guys moving forward in life that if you set goals and work hard enough for them, you can reach and attain them.”

No one outside of Slessinger and his players saw this one coming, including the league’s coaches, who picked the Privateers ninth out of 13 teams in the preseason. UNO’s best conference record was 8-10 in 2013-14 since an aborted decision to drop down to Division III and then Division II in 2010 gutted the program.

Operating on a shoestring budget, Slessinger, who was hired in June of 2011, has the Privateers on the verge of kicking down the door to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1995-96.

It took a ton of self-belief to get to this point as he guided UNO back to full-fledged Division I status and through a year’s ineligibility for NCAA academic progress report shortcomings that occurred prior to his arrival.

There was a reason all three of his predecessors left UNO for assistant coaching gigs. The job requires him to do more with less, often in front of a nearly empty arena.

“There were a lot of moments when you kind of banged your head against the wall about how this isn’t happening anywhere else, why is this happening?” he said. “Or why can’t we get people behind us? I just think you gotta have faith that this is such a unique place. I love this university and I love this city. Sure, I wish we’d had more people (for the Stephen F. Austin victory), but for us it was still a beautiful day.”

His Privateers are no fluke. Versatile 6-foot-5 senior forward Erik Thomas, the Southland Conference Player of the Year, averages 19.7 points and 7.9 rebounds. His shooting percentage of .604 — the second highest in the league — usually is reserved for 7-footers who get most of their baskets at point-blank range.

Yet, Thomas, a junior college transfer, is just as unselfish as the rest of his teammates on a senior-laden team that leads the Southland in field goal percentage and assists, and in Slessinger’s words, repeatedly sacrifices good shots for great shots.

“Before this summer, we had a big meeting with the whole team and set goals to become conference champs and win the conference tournament,” Thomas said. “We’re not going to change anything we’ve been doing. We’re going to be who we are and what we are. That’s just to play harder than the other team.”

The Privateers have played with passion and had fun on court all year, at least until the senior guard trio of Christavious Gill, Nate Frye and Tevin Broyles began thinking about the title too much in late-season losses to Northwestern State and Southeastern Louisiana.

The Privateers lost last-minute leads in both games, forcing them to win at Nicholls State last Saturday for sole possession of first place.

UNO prevailed 74-64, locking up an NIT bid if it does not win the Southland tournament.

“They had invested so much over their four years that they just wanted to make sure everything finished right, and they really pressed in those games,” Slessinger said. “They eventually got through it and played with incredible enthusiasm and were really focused defensively.”

They will need that same type of effort against Sam Houston State, the preseason conference favorite. The Bearkats lost six of their last eight in the regular season, but are meeting their high expectations in the tournament.

Slessinger, who has labeled UNO’s season a victory for the entire university community for months, does not anticipate the same tension that gripped his players near the end of the regular season.

"I’ve used the (Chicago Cubs manager) Joe Maddon quote with them several times,” he said. “You cannot permit the pressure to be greater than the pleasure. The whole key to us winning the tournament is being able to have fun, enjoy the moment, enjoy each other, laugh, high five and play loose.”