The defending Southland Conference men’s basketball tournament champions will get at least one more game at Merrell Center.
A decisive first half run from New Orleans provided the Privateers with enough cushion to hold off eighth-seeded Texas A&M-Corpus Christi 83-76 in an opening round game on Wednesday evening. In the rematch of last season’s tournament title game, UNO (15-15) led by as much as 16 points before a furious rush from the Islanders (11-18) brought them within four points with 1:11 left.
“Every time we play them, it’s just one of those games,” said New Orleans coach Mark Slessinger. “Over the years, we’ve developed a great rivalry and each time we play it’s one of those games that comes down to tooth and nail over and over.”
The Privateers meet fourth seed Sam Houston State in a quarterfinal game Thursday at 5 p.m. CT.
With a starting lineup that had two freshmen and a pair of sophomores around senior guard Joe Kilgore, the Islanders finally found their stride down the stretch.
Freshman guard Myles Smith hit three treys while sophomore Colin Hale came off the bench to hit a triple to pare the deficit to 71-64 with 2:49 remaining. A&M-Corpus Christi’s press defense continued to chip away at New Orleans, leading to a three-point play from Kilgore (29 points) and a free throw from Sean Rhea that left the Islanders down just 76-72 with 71 seconds left.
However, the Privateers pushed the Islanders away one last time as a basket from Rosser and five free throws in the final 41 seconds helped New Orleans snap a three-game losing streak that ended the regular season.
“It was a physical game. There’s no other way to describe it,” said A&M-Corpus Christi coach Willis Wilson of a game that saw the two teams shoot a combined 58 free throw attempts. “
New Orleans shot the ball with ruthless efficiency in the first half. After the Islanders forged an 11-11 tie following a Kilgore jumper with 13:54 remaining in the opening stanza, the Privateers embarked on a 30-14 run that was fueled by dunks from Damion Rosser and Dionate Champion. A jumper from Michael Zeno with 1:32 left in the half gave UNO their biggest lead at 41-25.
The Privateers shot a blistering 68 percent from the field in the first half as they connected on four of their six 3-point attempts. New Orleans’ defense also helped the scoring outburst by forcing 10 turnovers from the Islanders, converting them into 10 points.
“We were definitely locked in,” said Rosser, who finished with a team-high 17 points while adding seven rebounds. “We knew what we had to come out to do.”
Texas A&M-Corpus Christi shot a respectable 46 percent from the field in the first half with much of the offense coming from second team all-conference member Kilgore, who knocked down four treys en route to finishing the half with 14 points.
For a moment in the second half, the Islanders returned to their defensive-minded ways, forging their way back into the contest. A layup from Colin Hale with 13:11 left inched A&M-Corpus Christi within 48-40 before the Privateers regained balance and extended the margin to 56-42 following Rosser’s layup at the 9:43 mark.
The Islanders, who were without senior guards Ehab Amin and Emmanuel Toney for much of the season, will look to retool behind their youth while also replacing Kilgore, who scored at least 20 points in 15 games this season that included his last five contests.