Hours after the University of New Orleans men’s basketball team won the Southland Conference Tournament on Saturday night, coach Mark Slessinger returned to his hotel room with his family and several new prized possessions.
Still feeling the joy of a dramatic 68-65 win in overtime against Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, he placed the championshiptrophy and a clipped nylon net from a goal at the Leonard E. Merrell Center in Katy, Texas, inside the covers of his turned down bed.
He them aimed his cellphone and clicked, preserving the picture-perfect moment forever.
For the first time since 1996, the Privateers are dancing in the NCAA Tournament after earning an automatic bid to the 68-team shootout.
They will face Northeast Conference champion Mount St. Mary’s (19-15) in the First Four at 5:40 p.m. Tuesday at the University of Dayton. The winner plays defending NCAA Tournament champion Villanova (31-3) in a first-round game Thursday in Buffalo, New York.
The Wildcats are seeded No. 1 in the East Regional.
“No matter how hard you try to keep things in perspective, we know this is not just another game,’’ said Slessinger, whose team, coaching staff and other school athletic department officials gathered Sunday at a “Watch Party’’ on campus to learn their fate. “This is our Super Bowl.
“It really doesn’t matter who we play or where we play, we’ve got to go try to put together our absolute best 40 minutes. We’ve put in 36, 37 minutes before, so let’s go put forth 40. Let’s go do it!’’
To borrow a refrain from Slessinger, the 20-11 Privateers will be “doing it’’ for a city left for dead by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, an enrollment-depleted university, its enduring faculty and administration, its students and others who count themselves among the UNO fan base.
Win or lose, this one’s for all of them.
“This is an unbelievable blessing and an extremely humbling experience,’’ said Slessinger, now 77-97 in six seasons at UNO. “We are all champions.’’
Figuratively speaking, yes. Also, UNO won the Southland Conference in the regular season and postseason. But the NCAA Tournament is an altogether different beast where David rarely slays Goliath. Oh, it happens once in a blue moon which is all Slessinger wants.
“We’re a blue collar group,’’ said the 42-year-old Slessinger, a native of Bloomington, Indiana. “This is an opportunity for us to continue to tell our story. And the story is if you dream big and you work as hard as you possibly can, and you got an undefeated attitude, and are relentlessly positive, that good things happen. I think we’ll continue to do that.’’
Slessinger has been to the NCAAs twice before, as an assistant at Northwestern (La.) State in 2001 and ’06. Each time, the Demons won their first game before getting bounced in the next round by a Power 5 conference school.
UNO will be making its fifth appearance in school history, only once advancing past the round of 64 in 1987 when it lost to Alabama 101-76 in a second-round game. That Privateers’ team — seeded No. 7 in the Southeast Regional — featured NBA-bound guard Ledell Eackles and coach Benny Dees.
Slessinger’s team has no NBA prospects, though senior forward Erik Thomas was named Player of the Year in the Southland Conference and tournament MVP on Saturday night.
“Getting to the NCAAs validates all their hard work,’’ Slessinger said. “It puts us back in the conversation when we were a legitimate Mid-major power in the 80s and 90s. We’re not at that point but this is the first step for us getting back to that point.’’
Brian Allee-Walsh, a longtime Saints reporter based in New Orleans, can be reached at email@example.com.