North Texas endured quite the journey through the nonconference portion of its schedule.
The Mean Green played at VCU and Arkansas and learned about their team over the course of a two-month grind that came to a satisfying end on Saturday in a 102-64 win over Texas Wesleyan at the Super Pit.
UNT was expected to roll in a game against an NAIA opponent. It’s the way the Mean Green handled their business that was particularly gratifying for coach Grant McCasland and his players.
UNT continued to show signs of progress offensively and appeared ready for a tough trip to open Conference USA play. The Mean Green will take on traditional league power Western Kentucky on Thursday in the opener of a two-game trip that will conclude with a game at Marshall.
“There is a continuity in how we play offensively that translates to what we have always done well defensively,” McCasland said. “We have a more complete team and have an identity offensively. We can play inside out through Zach [Simmons] or space you and play through our guards.”
UNT (6-7) did a little of both in its win over Texas Wesleyan (8-4). Umoja Gibson hit five 3s on his way to a slump-busting 19-point outing.
The sophomore guard had scored just 11 points in the Mean Green’s previous two games combined.
Junior forward Thomas Bell tied his season-high with 16 points, and UNT had five players finish in double figures.
“The emphasis has been taking care of the ball. Coach Hodge mentioned that we shoot it well and usually make free throws,” backup guard JJ Murray said of associate head coach Ross Hodge. “Our downfall offensively is when we turn the ball over. We have to make sure we get shots.”
UNT did just that on a day it got just about everyone involved. The Mean Green had 11 players score on a day guard DJ Draper and forward Jahmiah Simmons sat out with a finger injury and the flu, respectively.
The Mean Green needed some time to get going before breaking the game open with a 14-1 run midway through the first half.
The Mean Green were up just 13-11 when Jalen Jackson found Zachary Simmons alone in the paint for a dunk that sparked UNT.
Deng Geu capped the run with another dunk that put the Mean Green up 27-12.
The Mean Green led 49-29 at halftime behind Bell, who hit all but one of his six shots from the floor, including three 3s on his way to scoring 14 points in the opening half.
Joe Cook-Green led Texas Wesleyan with 15 points.
“The timeout we took helped get us going,” Murray said. “We knew they were good offensively. Once we saw them make a couple of shots, it woke us up and got us going on the defensive end.”
UNT’s hope now is that its win over the Rams will give it the momentum it needs heading into a challenging road trip to open league play. The Mean Green have lost 10 straight to Western Kentucky and are 5-22 all-time against the Hilltoppers.
“That’s why we played games against VCU and Arkansas,” Bell said. “Those are tough teams. We played well enough to win those games and are ready for anyone.”
The way Bell has improved over the course of nonconference play and the progress Javion Hamlet has made while running the point have given McCasland confidence heading into conference play.
Hamlet finished with nine points, four assists and just one turnover. The junior has 27 assists and just seven turnovers in UNT’s last four games.
“We know who we are and where we need to improve,” McCasland said. “That is what is fun about this team. They have always gotten better.
“We are ready for conference play because of that.”
McCasland said Draper could have played against Texas Wesleyan after dislocating a finger in practice and should be ready to play against Western Kentucky. Draper had played in a team-high 66 straight games before missing Saturday’s game. Zachary Simmons now has the longest streak among UNT players at 56 games.
North Texas 102, Texas Wesleyan 64
TEXAS WESLEYAN (8-4) – Simmons 1-2 0-0 2, Lorenzen 2-12 1-1 7, Sallee 4-8 0-0 11, Berry 3-11 1-2 7, Karwoski 2-4 1-2 5, Shepard 1-7 1-2 4, Cook-Green 4-13 7-8 15, White 1-3 1-4 3, Rost 1-1 1-2 3, Pierce 0-2 0-0 0, Calvin 2-8 0-0 5, Russell 0-0 2-2 2. Totals 21-71 15-23 64.
NORTH TEXAS (6-7) – Geu 4-7 3-6 11. Simmons 5-8 2-5 12, Reese 4-6 3-3 13, Gibson 6-12 2-2 19, Hamlet 2-6 5-5 9, Smart 3-6 0-0 6, Jackson 2-2 1-5 5, Bell 5-8 3-5 16, Wise 1-2 0-0 2, Mohamed 0-0 1-2 1, Murray 1-2 5-6 8. Totals 33-59 25-39 102.
Halftime – UNT 49-29. Three-point goals – Texas Wesleyan 7-24 (Simmons 0-1, Lorenzen 2-9, Sallee 3-4, Berry 0-2, Shephard 1-3, Calvin 1-5) UNT 11-27 (Geu 0-2, Simmons 0-1 Reese 2-4, Gibson 5-9, Hamlet 0-1, Smart 0-3, Bell 3-5, Murray 1-2) Fouled out – Shepherd. Rebounds – Texas Wesleyan 40 (Karwoski 7) UNT 47 (Geu 11). Assists – Texas Wesleyan 12 (Berry 6) UNT 17 (two tied, 4) Total fouls – Texas Wesleyan 29, UNT 18. A – 2,035.