Tuesday was when life was supposed to get a whole lot easier for North Texas.
The Mean Green had gone through a meatgrinder over the last few days with games against Arkansas, Mississippi State and finally 11th-ranked West Virginia.
Arkansas-Pine Bluff, a SWAC team that came into the night having won just one game all season, wasn’t supposed to present much of a challenge.
The Golden Lions put up a tougher fight than expected before the Mean Green got exactly what they wanted to out of an 81-56 win at the Super Pit.
UNT (2-3) snapped a three-game losing streak and kicked off a busy week in style.
UNT will face Houston Baptist and LSU in the next four days before opening Conference USA play against UAB on New Year’s Day.
The Mean Green felt a whole lot better about where they stand heading into those games after finishing out their game against the Golden Lions (1-7) on a high note.
“We just came off a couple of tough games,” UNT guard James Reese said. “This was a great team we played tonight, but it was also a good game to regain our confidence.”
UNT will need that confidence in C-USA play after winning the league’s regular season title a year ago. The conference’s teams will be gunning to take down the Mean Green this year.
UNT has been preparing for that reality through a nonconference season that has been shortened by the coronavirus pandemic.
The Mean Green have looked to capitalize on every opportunity they’ve had to rebuild the chemistry they displayed last season.
“Winning is important,” UNT coach Grant McCasland said. “The bigger part of us winning is making progress with different lineups and getting experience on the floor so we don’t have any holes.”
The Mean Green knew heading into the season that they had star power with reigning C-USA Player of the Year Javion Hamlet. What has been particularly encouraging for UNT is its depth that was on display again in its win over UAPB.
Hamlet led UNT with 14 points and was one of seven players who scored at least eight points for the Mean Green. Markedric Bell and Dequan Morris led UAPB with 14 points each and helped the Golden Lions get off to a good start.
UAPB led for much of the first half and went up 26-19 after Bell hit a jumper.
McCasland and his players attributed their slow start to a lack of effort on the defensive end.
“If we don’t have any intensity on defense pressuring the ball, we tend to be slow on the offensive end,” Reese said. “Once we picked it up on defense, we played better offensively.”
Thomas Bell jumpstarted UNT by grabbing a rebound and hitting a jumper. The Mean Green went on to string together an 11-0 run to pull ahead 30-26.
UNT put the game away after Shaun Doss Jr. hit a layup early in the second half to pull UAPB within 41-38. The Mean Green answered with a 15-2 run and cruised the rest of the way.
“Our defense helped us during that run,” UNT forward Terence Lewis II said. “We pressured the ball and got a lot of deflections. We did what we had to do.”
McCasland was pleased with the way UNT responded after getting off to a slow start.
“We were not aggressive enough to start the game defensively early,” McCasland said. “We took a casual approach on that end, let them get into a rhythm and missed some easy shots. We didn’t have the edge that we needed. I was proud of the way we responded in the second half defensively. We got turnovers that gave us energy on the offensive end.”
That shift helped UNT snap its losing streak and get off to a good start in a key week that gives the Mean Green one last chance to prepare for conference play.
North Texas 81, Arkansas-Pine Bluff 56
ARKANSAS-PINE BLUFF (1-7) – Bell 6-14 2-2 14, Banyard 0-2 0-0 0, Johnson 2-8 2-2 6, Doss 2-12 4-4 8, Morris 7-12 0-0 14, Lynn 4-5 0-0 11, Doolittle 1-2 0-0 3, Stredic0-0 0-0 0, Ivory III 0-0 0-0 0, Stokes 0-0 0-0 0, Boyd 0-0 0-0 0, Hargrove 0-0 0-0 0, Doolittle 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 22-55 4-13 56.
NORTH TEXAS (2-3) – Bell 4-6 0-0 8, Simmons 5-8 2-5 12, Reese 4-6 0-0 10, McBride 3-4 0-0 9, Hamlet 6-12 2-3 14, Jones 4-8 0-0 10, Lewis 4-5 3-3 11, Ousmane 0-2 0-0 0, Murray 1-1 1-2 4, Robinson 1-3 1-2 3, Jackson 0-1 0-2. Totals 32-56 9-17 81.
Halftime – UNT 36-32 Three-point goals – UAPB 4-13 (Bell 0-3, Johnson 0-3, Doss 0-1, Lynn 3-4, Doolittle 1-2) UNT 8-16 (Reese 2-4, McBride 3-4, Hamlet 0-2 Jones 2-4, Murray 1-1, Robinson 0-1) Fouled out – Stredic Rebounds – UAPB 32 (Doss 10), UNT 30 (Simmons 6) Assists – UAPB 8 (two tied, 3) UNT 13 (two tied, 3) Total fouls – UAPB 18, UNT 12. A – 1,211.