Zachary Simmons knew North Texas was in for a challenging few weeks to open the season.
The junior forward just didn’t expect anything like the meat grinder the Mean Green continued to go through on Saturday.
UNT entered its game against Eastern Michigan looking to snap a two-game losing streak after dropping a pair of tough road games.
That slump got just little longer instead in a 56-51 loss to the Eagles.
UNT was locked in a 47-47 deadlock with 3:51 left in a defensive slug fest. The feeling at the Super Pit was that whoever made a bucket or two down the stretch would prevail.
That team turned out to be the Eagles, much to the chagrin of Simmons and the rest of the Mean Green.
“We have played some tough teams and tested ourselves early, especially with a new team,” Simmons said. “We have a lot of guys without much experience at this level. We knew what we were getting into. We thought we would win a few of these.”
UNT hasn’t and now has just one game left before it departs for its final two games in the Jamaica Classic in Montego Bay.
UNT’s game against EMU and its showdown with North Carolina A&T on Tuesday are also a part of the event in which each team plays two on-campus games and two on the island.
The Mean Green will face Rhode Island and a nationally ranked Utah State team next week in its final two games in the event and are still looking to find their form. UNT knew it would need some time to adjust with several newcomers playing key roles.
There have been plenty of highs and lows along the way after UNT opened the season with a win over Oklahoma Christian before falling at VCU and Arkansas.
UNT couldn’t break out of its slide against EMU after struggling down the stretch.
Chris James made a layup in the paint before Ty Groce hit a pair of free throws to extend the Eagles’ lead to 51-47 with 2:12 left.
The Mean Green pulled within two twice, the second time on an alleyoop dunk by James Reese off an assist from Javion Hamlet with 56 seconds left.
UNT had a chance to tie the game in the closing seconds. Umoja Gibson tried to hit Deng Geu in the high post but turned the ball over with 12 seconds left when Geu ran out of the spot to set a screen.
“I should have called a timeout in the last two plays,” UNT coach Grant McCasland said. “I thought we could get a ball screen and a paint touch in transition.”
The Eagles iced the game at the free throw line and left UNT still searching for its first win over a Division I team and a way to get going offensively.
UNT struggled against EMU’s 2-3 zone, as well as the Eagles’ size and athleticism. UNT tried to balance getting the ball inside with taking the open 3s that were available and never found the right mix.
“The zone caused us lots of problems,” McCasland said. “We turned the ball over 19 times, including 16 from new guys. It shows our inexperience. I need to do a better job with this group so that they can play aggressive without turning the ball over.”
McCasland acknowledged that UNT is still searching for a go-to player at the end of games when it needs someone to make a play with the ball and hit a big shot. Point guard Ryan Wooldridge often had the ball in his hands at the end of games last season before transferring to Gonzaga in the offseason.
“We got some good looks,” Geu said. “They just didn’t fall. That’s part of the game.”
Geu and Gibson each finished with 11 points to pace UNT, while Javion Hamlet added 10.
That just wasn’t enough against EMU. Groce led the Eagles with 15 points, while Yeikson Montero added 14.
UNT led by as many as six in the early going before going cold offensively against EMU’s zone.
The Eagles took their first lead at the 15-14 on a Groce 3.
The shot sparked EMU, which closed the half on a 12-3 run. Montero and Groce hit back-to-back 3s to cap the bust and put the Eagles up 29-22 at halftime.
UNT shot just 32.1% (9 of 28) in the first half while struggling to penetrate EMU’s zone.
The Mean Green were much more efficient in the second half while shooting 45% (9 of 20).
“We tried to rely on ball movement early to get the ball into the high post,” McCasland said of the first half. “In the second half, we tried to create angles and get the ball into the paint quicker.”
That plan got UNT back into the game. The Mean Green just couldn’t quite get over the hump and were left riding a three-game losing streak, one that hasn’t dented their confidence.
“This team will get better,” McCasland said. “I’m convinced of that. They love each other and care about winning. The guys that we have in this locker room are the ones who will win here.”
Eastern Michigan 56, North Texas 51
EASTERN MICHIGAN (4-0) – Groce 5-15 3-4 15, Toure 2-4 1-3 5, Montero 5-10 2-2 14, Morgan 1-5 2-2 4, Spottsville 1-3 0-1 2, Barnes 2-4 0-0 4, Dillard 2-5 2-2 7, James 1-2 1-2 3, King 1-1 0-0 2. Totals 20-49 11-16 56.
NORTH TEXAS (1-3) – Geu 4-7 3-5 11, Z. Simmons 2-5 0-0 4, Reese 3-7 0-0 8, Gibson 3-12 2-2 11, Hamlet 3-7 2-2 10, Bell 1-4 0-0 2, Draper 1-2 0-0 3, J. Simmons 0-1 0-0 0, Wise 0-1 0-0 0, Smart 1-2 0-0 2, Mohammed 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 18-48 7-9 51
Halftime – EMU 29-22. Three-point goals – EMU 5-20 (Groce 2-10, Montero 2-3, Morgan 0-3, Dillard 1-3, James 0-1) UNT 8-20 (Reese 2-6, Gibson 3-8, Hamlet 2-2, Bell 0-1, Draper 1-2, Smart 0-1). Fouled out – none. Rebounds – EMU 31 (Toure 8) UNT 34 (Simmons 12). Assists – EMU 10 (Montero 4) UNT 9 (Hamlet 3). Total fouls – EMU 15, UNT 19. A – 2,380.