North Texas knew heading into its game against Charlotte on Thursday that life was about to get a whole lot tougher.
The Mean Green spent weeks working their way to the top of the Conference USA standings. UNT will need to run through a gauntlet of the top teams in the league to stay there.
So far, so good.
The Mean Green broke open a close game against Charlotte in the closing moments of the second half and pulled away for an 81-72 win at the Super Pit.
Charlotte entered the day at 8-4 in C-USA play and figured to be the first of six straight tough opponents for UNT to close the regular season. UNT (17-9, 11-2) is set to finish in the top five in the C-USA standings heading into the league’s unique bonus play format, where it will face the other top four teams in the standings to close the regular season.
“It’s fixing to be March,” UNT guard Javion Hamlet said. “We are not the underdog anymore. We have to come out there and play hard.”
UNT has done just that all season and is inching closer to the C-USA title while building on the best start to a conference season in program history.
The Mean Green have found different ways to win in the process.
This time around, UNT was forced to dig deep in the second half and show some poise against Charlotte (14-10, 8-5). The Mean Green were up 45-40 after Zachary Simmons hit a layup in the paint at the 14:28 mark of the second half.
Charlotte responded with an 8-0 run.
Malik Martin converted a three-point play to start the burst he capped with a pair of free throws that put Charlotte up 48-45.
The way UNT responded brought them one step closer to a conference title.
James Reese hit a pair of 3s to steady the Mean Green, who went on an 8-0 run a short time later to put Charlotte away.
Senior guard DJ Draper hit just one shot all night, a 3 to cap the run that put UNT up 61-54.
The Mean Green were never seriously threatened the rest of the way.
“We showed some poise in the second half,” UNT coach Grant McCasland said. “It looks like our guys trust each other.”
Draper’s key shot was just one of several UNT drilled at critical times on a good night overall for the Mean Green offensively. UNT shot 59.3% (32 of 54) for the game and had all five of its starters finish in double figures.
Umoja Gibson led UNT with 20 points. Simmons added 17, Hamlet 15, Deng Geu 12 and James Reese 10.
“Our ball movement is the reason we shot the ball so well,” McCasland said. “Thomas Bell was the unsung hero. He made the right plays. We didn’t have one guy with eight assists. We had guys with five, four, three and three. That shows you are sharing the ball.”
UNT needed to be at its best offensively to fend off Charlotte, which hit 13 shots from 3-point range. Jahmir Young led the 49ers with 21 points.
“Charlotte is a really good team that is really good offensively and tough,” Simmons said. “They stick to their principles. They don’t beat themselves.”
The resilience the 49ers showed helped them stay in the game, despite a quick start by UNT.
The Mean Green shot 53.6% (15 of 28) from the field in the first half and led by as many as 10 points before settling for a 33-29 lead at the break.
Umoja Gibson hit an early 3 to spark a 7-0 run that gave the Mean Green a 14-7 lead. UNT stretched its advantage to 29-19 behind five straight points from Gibson before Charlotte answered.
The 49ers closed the half with five straight points.
“It felt like they were a step ahead of us offensively all night,” McCasland said. “Give them credit 13 threes is hard to guard.”
The shooting barrage didn’t phase UNT. Neither did falling behind in the second half, when the 49ers made their run.
The Mean Green had an answer and tightened their grip on the top spot in the C-USA standings heading into their final game before the start of bonus play.
“We have a really composed team that is together,” Simmons said. “That helps us when it comes to the late stretches. We find a way to be the tougher team and dig down to get stops.”
North Texas 81, Charlotte 72
CHARLOTTE (14-10, 8-5) – Bamba 0-4 1-2 1, Young 8-17 2-2 21, Martin 5-7 3-3 15, Shepherd 4-10 1-2 11, Edwards 4-6 5-6 16, Supica 0-0 0-0 0, Robb 2-3 0-0 6, Vasic 0-1 2-4 2, Williams 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 23-48 13-19 72.
NORTH TEXAS (17-9, 11-2) – Geu 6-6 0-0 12, Z. Simmons 8-11 1-3 17, Reese 3-7 2-2 10, Gibson 7-12 2-3 20, Hamlet 5-11 5-8 15, Bell 2-2 0-0 4, Draper 1-3 0-0 3, Smart 0-2 0-0 0, J. Simmons 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 32-54 10-16 81.
Halftime – UNT 33-29. Three-point goals – Charlotte 13-23 (Young 3-6, Martin 2-3, Shepherd 2-5, Edwards 4-6 Robb 2-2, Vasic 0-1) UNT 7-18 (Reese 2-4, Gibson 4-8, Hamlet 0-1, Draper 1-3, Smart 0-2). Fouled out – Edwards. Rebounds – Charlotte 21 (Young 5), UNT 31 (Geu 9). Assists – Charlotte 13 (Young 4), UNT 17 (Hamlet 5). Total fouls – Charlotte 19, UNT 15. A – 4,086.