North Texas faced a team that amounted to its polar opposite in its Conference USA home opener on Thursday.
Few teams in the country play at a slower pace than the Mean Green, while no team is more effective pushing the pace than Florida International among teams in C-USA.
UNT won the battle in terms of pace. That was perhaps the biggest reason the Mean Green rolled to a 74-56 win over the Panthers at the Super Pit.
FIU came into the night averaging a C-USA-best 82 points per game. The Panthers (11-5, 2-1 C-USA) never came to that total and finished with its lowest point total in coach Jeremy Ballard’s two seasons at FIU.
“We knew it would be a quick tempo game,” UNT forward Deng Geu said. “Transition was a big emphasis throughout the week.
“Our guards did a really good job of not getting sped up and getting to where we need to be.”
That sweet spot was between FIU’s guards and the rim in the open floor.
The Panthers thrive on beating teams to the basket when they get the opportunity. They didn’t have that chance often against the Mean Green. FIU finished with 14 fast-break points.
UNT (8-8, 2-1) faced full-court pressure for most of the game and turned the ball over just 18 times.
“We did really well handling the pressure,” UNT guard Javion Hamlet said. “I put the turnovers on me. I didn’t make the simple plays.”
Hamlet and the Mean Green made more than enough plays once they got the ball into the half court and methodically worked through their offensive sets to get open looks.
A host of those shots came from the 3-point range, where six players combined to knock down 10 shots.
Those half-court sets were just where UNT wanted to be. The Mean Green came into the night ranked No. 21 in KenPom.com’s rankings of teams that play at the slowest pace in the country.
UNT relied on Hamlet to handle the pressure and control the pace. That is exactly what he did, with some help from fellow guards DJ Draper, Umoja Gibson and James Reese.
“I felt like if we could show patience, we could get open 3s and we did,” UNT coach Grant McCasland said. “Javion and Mo handled pressure all game. DJ and Reese did as well. Once we handled the initial wave, we got into the half court and kept attacking.”
Hamlet asserted himself on the offensive end once UNT did settle into the half court and led four Mean Green players who finished in double figures with 16 points.
Gibson added 14 points, while Thomas Bell and Roosevelt Smart came off the bench to score 10 points each.
All four of UNT’s players who finished in double figures hit at least one 3.
“We got really good looks,” Geu said. “We were patient, made the right passes and we have some shooters on the team.”
Trejon Jackob led FIU with 13 points and was one of three Panthers to finish in double figures, Osasumwen Osaghae added 11 points and Devon Andrews 10.
FIU just didn’t have enough firepower to hang with UNT, despite being the top-scoring team in C-USA.
The Mean Green hit eight 3s in the first half and took a 38-26 lead into the break.
Draper hit the first of those 3s to spark an early 10-0 run that put the Mean Green up 14-7. UNT quickly built a double-digit lead and was up by as many as 16 points late in the first half.
FIU never recovered while struggling against UNT’s half-court defense. McCasland credited his players for fighting through screens to stay with the Panthers top scorers and not giving them open looks from deep.
A standout defensive performance got UNT off to a great start in terms of its home slate in C-USA play that will continue with a game against Florida Atlantic on Saturday.
“Winning home games is everything,” McCasland said. “We have another tough one on Saturday.”
North Texas 74, Florida International 56
FLORIDA INTERNATIONAL (11-5, 2-1) – Osaghae 5-11 1-2 11, Andrews 4-11 1-4 10, Banks 0-3 2-4 2, Jacob 5-7 0-0 13, Daye 1-5 0-0 3, Corcoran 3-7 3-3 9, Carrigan 0-0 0-2 0, Lovett 2-6 2-2 8, Furcron 0-1 0-0 0, Ametepe 0-0 0-0 0, Nunez 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 20-51 9-17 56.
NORTH TEXAS (8-8, 2-1) – Geu 4-7 0-0 8, Z. Simmons 2-2 1-2 5, Reese 1-4 0-0 3, Gibson 5-19 1-2 14, Hamlet 5-9 5-5 16, Bell 4-5 1-1 10, Draper 2-4 0-0 6, Smart 4-6 0-0 10, Jackson 0-0 2-2 2, Mohamed 0-2 0-0 0, J. Simmons 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 27-58 10-12 74.
Halftime – UNT 38-26. Three-point goals – FIU 9-17 (Osaghae 0-1, Andrews 1-3, Banks 0-3, Jacob 3-5, Daye 1-2, Corcoran 0-2, Lovett 2-4, Furcron 0-1) FIU 10-26 (Geu 0-2, Reese 1-3, Gibson 3-10, Hamlet 1-4, Bell 1-1, Draper 2-3, Smart 2-3). Fouled out – none. Rebounds – FIU 29 (Andrews 7), UNT 39 (Two tied, 7). Assists – FIU 9 (Corcoran 3), UNT 15 (Hamlet 5). Total fouls – FIU 12, UNT 12. A – 2,262.