DENVER -- North Texas came into the season as the clear-cut favorite to win the Sun Belt Conference's West Division for the second straight year.
That opportunity appears all but gone now after a week that started off badly for the Mean Green and actually got worse on Saturday, when Denver rolled to a surprisingly easy 80-67 win over UNT at Magness Arena.
UNT was still in the hunt for the division title heading into its road trip to Louisiana-Lafayette and Denver. The Mean Green isn't thinking about winning anything more than its next game after a second straight dreadful performance defensively.
UNT coughed up 93 points in its loss to the Ragin' Cajuns on Thursday and might have actually been worse in its loss to the Pioneers. Denver runs a Princeton-style offense that limits the possessions in a game and frequently results in low-scoring games.
The Pioneers scored just 49 points in a loss to Middle Tennessee in its last game on Jan. 22.
Denver bounced back to post a season-high for points in a game against UNT, which was left searching for answers -- and a way to turn its season around. The Mean Green has lost consecutive games for the first time this season.
"We have done that in the last few games," UNT head coach Johnny Jones said of playing poorly on the defensive end. "It's my job to find five guys who are committed enough to get stops. It's late in the game and important for us to do it pretty quick."
Even if UNT gets back on track late in the season, it could be tough for the Mean Green (16-6, 5-4) to run down Denver (11-10, 7-1) with just a month left in the season.
If UNT comes up short, it might look back at a series of games in which it couldn't make key stops as the reason why it fell short of expectations.
UNT played well at times defensively early in the season, including a 75-55 win over LSU. Those performances have been the exception, especially late in the season.
UNT has given up at least 78 points in all four of its losses in Sun Belt play.
"It's the same old story," UNT guard Josh White said. "They shot a high percentage. If you give up 80 to 85 points, you make it hard on yourself. You are not going to get it done doing that."
UNT's struggles against Denver were due largely to the Pioneers ability to get open looks -- and knock them down.
Denver went 12-for-26 from behind the arc and shot 55.8 percent (24-for-43) overall.
Brian Stafford went 5-for-8 from deep and led the Pioneers with 21 points.
"That is what they do, run their offense and keep running it until they get a good shot," UNT forward George Odufuwa said. "We knew that coming in. We have to get better."
UNT struggled to keep up with the Pioneers and their efficient offense. Denver limited UNT to two fast break points and forced 12 costly turnovers. The Mean Green shot 53.7 percent (22-for-41) from the floor, but had a season-low 41 shots for the game.
White led UNT with 15 points and was one of four players who finished in double figures for the Mean Green. Odufuwa added a double-double that included 14 points and 11 rebounds, while Tristan Thompson and Shannon Shorter also finished in double figures with 13 and 10 points, respectively.
UNT had to play from behind most of the night, despite a solid night offensively from several of its key players,
Denver shot 68.8 percent (11-for-16) from the floor in the first half and led 39-34 at the break. The Pioneers were particularly effective from 3-point range, where they went 8-for-16.
Denver didn't heat up until after UNT got off to a solid start and took an 11-3 lead.
The Pioneers went up for the first time at 26-23 on a Tyler Thalken 3-pointer. Denver went on to score its next 12 points from beyond the arc.
"We lost our sense of urgency on the defensive end." Odufuwa said.
UNT was still within striking distance when Dominique Johnson went to the line with Denver up 55-48 at the 8:40 mark of the second half. Johnson hit just one of two and Denver answered with back-to-back 3s.
The Mean Green never threatened the rest of the way.
"We played a team tonight that is playing like a 7-1 -- a first-place team," Jones said. "They are playing the best on the West side."
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Denver 80, North Texas 67
NORTH TEXAS (16-6, 5-4) - Odufuwa 5-7 4-4 14, Hogans 3-6 0-0 6, White 3-8 7-10 15, Thompson 3-6 4-4 13, Shorter 4-5 2-3 10, Johnson 3-5 1-3 7, Knox 0-0 0-0 0, Holmen 1-4 0-0 2, Edwards 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 22-41 18-24 67.
DENVER (11-10, 7-1) - Coughlin 0-1 0-0 0, C. Hallam 4-7 3-5 13, Stafford 6-10 4-4 21, Thalken 3-4 4-4 13, T. Hallam 3-7 0-0 6, Noonan 4-4 0-0 10, Lewis 0-2 2-2 2, Udofia 4-8 7-10 15. Totals 24-43 12-26 80.
Halftime -- Denver 39-34. 3-point goals - UNT 5-7 (White 2-3, Thompson 3-3, Shorter 0-1), UNT 12-26 (Coughlin 0-1, C. Hallam 2-4, Stafford 5-8, Thalken 3-4, T. Hallam 0-4, Noonan 2-2, Lewis 0-1, Udofia 0-2). Fouled out - Thalken. Rebounds - UNT 24 (Odufuwa 11), Denver 20 (Udofia 8) Assists - UNT 10 (Thompson 3), Denver 18 (Udofia 5). Total fouls - UNT 19, Denver 21. A - 3,208.