Everything seemed to be going wrong for North Texas in the second half of its game at Middle Tennessee last week.
A 13-point lead had vanished in a flash, putting the Mean Green in danger of dropping back-to-back games in Conference USA play. That’s when James Reese gathered in a pass at the 3-point arc.
What happened next was an illustration of what has helped UNT rise to the top of the league standings.
Reese didn’t hesitate to hoist a 3 that dropped, breaking a 63-63 tie and sparking a late Mean Green run in a 75-70 win.
“I was ready and thinking about making a play for my team,” Reese said. “Making 3-point shots is part of our DNA.”
The importance of the 3-point shot to UNT has become abundantly clear during a breakout season that will continue Thursday when the Mean Green host Charlotte. UNT heads into its final six games of the regular season with a shot to go down as the best 3-point shooting team in program history.
The Mean Green are shooting 39.4% from beyond the arc on the season, just short of the program record of 39.8% in the 2007-08 season. UNT featured four guards in its record-setting season who rank in the top 10 in program history in 3-point field goal percentage, including Josh White and Tristan Thompson. Both White and Thompson rank among the top five scorers in Mean Green history and helped lead UNT to its second straight season with at least 20 wins that year.
The Mean Green (16-9) are 10-2 in Conference USA play and well on their way to a third straight 20-win campaign under Grant McCasland. UNT is clearly a threat to achieve more than just winning 20 games this year, thanks largely to its prolific shooting from deep.
That’s not a coincidence. McCasland and his staff had a plan going into the season and has pulled it off to perfection.
“This is for sure the best perimeter shooting team we have had here,” McCasland said. “It’s intentional. We recruited guys who can space the floor.”
Umoja Gibson (67), Reese (46), DJ Draper (41), Javion Hamlet (20) and Thomas Bell (20) have all hit at least 20 shots from deep on the season.
Draper is shooting a whopping 56.9% from 3-point range. Bell is shooting 41.7% while Reese (39.0%), Gibson (38.5%) and Hamlet (37.7%) are also shooting a high percentage from deep.
Draper, Reese and Gibson have all gotten up enough attempts to qualify for C-USA’s statistical leaders and rank first, eighth and 11th in the league in 3-point percentage, respectively.
“We have good shooters,” Draper said. “When anyone puts one up, I feel like it’s going in.”
The quality of shooters UNT has on the floor is just part of the story.
The Mean Green have also fine tuned how they go about getting their best shooters quality looks from the perimeter. It all starts with a player who had made just three 3s all season – forward Zachary Simmons.
UNT often throws the ball to its 6-foot-10 forward in the paint and lets him find open shooters at the 3-point arc.
“The biggest difference has been Zach because of how much attention he attracts,” McCasland said. “We have been able to keep the floor spaced.”
UNT is making a concerted effort to play in the halfcourt and get the ball inside before it takes a shot. Defenses are collapsing in on Simmons to take him away.
The tradeoff is that teams are often leaving UNT’s shooters open on the perimeter.
Rice left Draper open over and over again earlier this season. He responded by drilling all but one of his seven 3-point attempts. UNT lost that game but has seen its reliance on the 3-point shot pay off more often than not.
McCasland and his players also cited the work players like Draper have put in for UNT’s record-threatening shooting this season.
The Mean Green’s shooters can often be found in the Super Pit taking extra 3s on their own. McCasland said earlier this season that he has gotten calls from campus police in the middle of the night wondering why the lights on in the Super Pit.
It’s usually one of UNT’s guards getting up extra shots.
That work has helped UNT thrive in a season the 3-point line moved back from 20 feet, 9 inches to 22-1 3/4, the distance in international basketball.
“It didn’t make a difference when they moved the line back,” Draper said. “Most of the 3s you shoot are not on the line. We have been shooting there anyway.”
UNT has been taking plenty of shots from beyond the arc. The payoff has been considerable for the Mean Green, who are threatening the program’s record for 3-point field goal percentage while making a run at the C-USA regular season title.
“We’re letting it rip,” Draper said. “If we have an open look, we’re going to take it.”