North Texas has quite a history in basketball over the last 20 years.
Johnny Jones guided the Mean Green to the NCAA tournament in 2007 and 2010. The Mean Green also won the College Basketball Invitational two years ago.
Each of those teams left their mark on the history of UNT’s program.
None got off to the type of run the Mean Green are on now following a 79-59 win over Rice on Monday at the Super Pit.
UNT (12-8) won its sixth straight game and improved to 6-1 in Conference USA play. That’s the Mean Green’s best start to a conference season since the 1988-89 campaign, when they were members of the Southland.
“This is one of the best teams I have ever been a part of,” UNT forward Zachary Simmons said. “We have a lot of good guys and a lot of talent, but it’s not how you start — it’s how you finish. We have had some trouble with that the last two conference seasons. To finish it off would be big time.”
UNT entered its game against Rice (9-11, 1-6) off a dramatic win over Louisiana Tech. Javion Hamlet hit a buzzer-beater to give the Mean Green a 51-50 win.
UNT didn’t show any signs of overlooking a Rice team that has struggled all season and rolled behind a balanced scoring attack.
Hamlet followed up his big shot against Louisiana Tech by scoring a career-high 24 points to lead four UNT players who scored in double figures.
UNT had a huge advantage inside against an undersized Rice team and fed the ball inside early and often to Zachary Simmons. The junior hit all seven of his shots from the field on the way to scoring 17 points.
Umoja Gibson added 15 points and James Reese 10.
Zach Crisler and Trey Murphy III each scored 11 points for Rice.
UNT coach Grant McCasland has emphasized keeping an even keel throughout the season and didn’t change his stance after the Mean Green continued to build on their winning streak that began following a loss to Western Kentucky to open conference play.
The Mean Green and Hilltoppers came into the night tied atop the conference standings.
“It’s a long conference journey,” McCasland said. “This is what we hoped to do, but this isn’t our goal. Our goal is to win the league. The only way to do that is to keep winning.”
UNT appears to have the opportunity to do just that, thanks to a favorable schedule over the next few days. The Mean Green’s game against Rice was the opener of a four-game series against the other Texas teams in C-USA. The Mean Green will then face Middle Tennessee. None of the other Texas teams in C-USA enter the week over .500 in conference play, while Middle Tennessee is 0-6.
UNT showed no signs of letting that opportunity slip away after dominating Rice defensively. The Owls came into the day averaging 73.3 points per game. They came nowhere close to that total and scored just 23 points in the second half while shooting 26.9% from the field.
UNT has held five straight opponents under 60 points.
“We try to hold guys to their lowest point of the season,” Hamlet said. “Our motto is ‘Defend to win.’ That is what we do.”
UNT needed a while to get on track but eventually blew the game open midway through the first half.
The Mean Green were up just 21-20 when Hamlet drilled a 3 to spark an 8-2 run.
Hamlet hit another jumper and then kicked the ball to Reese for a 3 that put the Mean Green up 29-22.
UNT led the rest of the half and took a 44-36 edge into halftime. Gibson hit back-to-back 3s to open the second half and UNT cruised the rest of the way.
“We started out in the first half lacking defensive intensity,” Simmons said. “That was a big emphasis in the second half, getting stops. When we get stops and play in transition, we are a really good team.”
UNT has rolled out several great teams since the last time it started 6-1 in conference play back in 88-89.
The Mean Green certainly appear to have another team that fits that profile this season and are determined to build on their historic start.
“We are just trying to get better every day,” Hamlet said. “We haven’t arrived yet. We are going to keep pushing each other to get better.”
North Texas 79, Rice 59
RICE (9-11, 6-1) — Crisler 4-5 1-2 11, Peterson 3-9 1-2 9, Parrish 2-5 1-1 5, Adams 3-7 2-2 10, Mullins 4-10 0-0 8, Murphy 4-10 2-2 11, Moore 2-5 1-2 5, Olivari 0-3 0-0 0, Fielder 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 22-54 8-11 8-11 59.
NORTH TEXAS (12-8, 6-1) — Geu 1-2 3-2 4, Z. Simmons 7-7 3-4 17, Reese 4-7 0-0 10, Gibson 5-11 2-2 15, Hamlet 7-15 8-9 24, Bell 0-3 2-6 2, Smart 1-2 0-0 2, Draper 1-2 0-0 3, Jackson 1-1 0-0 2, J. Simmons 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 27-50 17-23 79.
Halftime – UNT 44-36. Three-point goals – Rice 7-19 (Crisler 2-2, Peterson 2-3, Adams 2-4, Mullins 0-3, Murphy 1-4, Moore 0-1, Olivari 0-2) UNT 8-18 (Reese 2-4, Gibson 3-8, Hamlet 2-4, Draper 1-2). Fouled out – none. Rebounds – Rice 33 (Murphy 10), UNT 28 (Bell 8). Assists – Rice 10 (Murphy 3), UNT 9 (Hamlet 5). Total fouls – Rice 18, UNT 12. A – 2,729.