UNO can’t hold early lead in Bethune Cookman loss

— The University of New Orleans on Thursday couldn’t complete a Big Easy sweep of Bethune-Cookman, which two days earlier lost to Tulane but bounced back to defeat the Privateers, 71-65.

The victory was the first of the year for the Wildcats, who improved to 1-2; UNO fell to 1-2. The Privateers were led by senior forward Lovell Cook, who tallied 18 points. Bethune had four players in double figures, led by forward Adrien Coleman’s 20.

The loss was a painful one for UNO, which jumped to a 20-7 edge with hot long-range shooting and led the contest for nearly 35 minutes before foul trouble, poor ball handling and suddenly cold shooting allowed the Wildcats to post the come-from-behind win.

UNO senior guard Rarlensee Nelson said the Privateers scouted Tulane’s win over BCU earlier in the week and tried to develop a solid game plan based on the Green Wave’s performance.

That worked for the first 20 minutes Thursday, with UNO taking a 33-27 halftime lead. But whatever the Privateers did in the first half — including shooting nearly 54 percent from the floor for the initial stanza — decidedly didn’t in the last 20.

“After watching the (Tulane) game, we saw a lot of stuff we could do against (the Wildcats,” said Nelson, who dished out a team-leading and career-high 14 assists. “During the first half, we were doing it. But you don’t win games in the first half. You win games in the second half.”

It was hard not to compare the Privateers’ performance against the Wildcats with the way the crosstown Green Wave played Bethune two nights earlier.

Unlike Tulane, which found itself behind by double digits early, UNO dominated BCU at the outset, zipping to a 20-7 lead. The run was keyed by blistering shooting — UNO was connecting at 80 percent a little more than six minutes in.

But while Tulane was able to come back and eventually swamp the Wildcats, UNO fell apart in the second half Thursday, especially late.

After the Privateers stretched their lead to 56-44 with about seven minutes left, BCU went on a 27-9 run to close the game.

Nelson said that, down the stretch, his squad simply didn’t do the little things it needed to do to put the Wildcats away.

“We needed to come up with the loose rebounds. We needed to box out,” he said. “It’s all about the 50-50 ball, and that’s killing us right now.”

Whether by design or not, the Privateers relied heavily on long-range jumpers for much of the game, especially early: Only eight of UNO’s 33 first-half points came in the paint.

During the first half, it helped the Privateers that Bethune shot miserably, averaging less than 30 percent in the initial 20 minutes, and failed to take advantage of numerous scoring opportunities.

But UNO gradually cooled offensively — although it still shot 53.6 percent for the half — and the Wildcats used a series of steals and big 3-pointers to close the Privateers’ lead to 33-27 at halftime.

UNO established more of an inside presence in the second half, thanks largely to the play of 6-foot-7 reserve forward Cory Dixon, who cleaned up on the boards — he had a team-leading eight for the game — drew several inside fouls and tallied three blocks, including a nasty one on BCU forward Alex Smith’s layup attempt.

Things went sour for UNO when it got into foul trouble and the Wildcats capitalized by hitting their free throws. The Privateers turned the ball over 14 times, and the Wildcats posted nine steals.

BCU managed to leave the Crescent City with a two-game split at UNO’s expense.

“When you’re on the road, the big thing is to get a split,” BCU coach Gravelle Craig said. “You don’t want to leave without a victory, and you have to get a big win on the road.”