North Texas made its final home game as a member of the Sun Belt Conference a memorable one.
UNT blitzed Middle Tennessee for three quick goals Thursday and then hung on for a 3-2 win at the Mean Green Soccer Stadium, one that put the Mean Green in position to leave the league as the regular-season conference champion.
UNT entered the night with a 7-0-1 mark in Sun Belt play, just a half game behind the Blue Raiders, who were the last perfect team in the league at 8-0.
UNT (13-3-2) needed a win to keep its hopes of winning the conference title alive and got it. The Mean Green is now at the top of the Sun Belt standings with only Sunday’s game against Western Kentucky standing between it and a conference title.
“It’s a good way to go out in our last home game in the Sun Belt,” UNT head coach John Hedlund said. “It came against one of our biggest rivals in the conference. Tonight was a classic. It was two of the better teams in the league with tremendous history. It was a dogfight.”
For a while, it appeared as if MTSU (13-4) wouldn’t put up much of a fight in what could be its last game against UNT before the Mean Green departs for Conference USA.
Michelle Young scored in the 13th minute on a shot into the bottom corner of the net to give UNT the lead.
Amber Haggerty added a second goal when she knocked home a rebound off a shot from Jackie Moreau less than three minutes later.
Karla Pineda appeared to put the game out of reach when she knocked home a header off an assist from Allison Guderian in the 29th minute.
“We came out really strong,” UNT senior midfielder Kara Brooks said. “We haven’t come out that strong in a while, so it was really exciting that all the girls showed up to play. We put away our chances — that was the main thing.”
UNT just couldn’t put MTSU away.
The Blue Raiders came into the game ranked second nationally with an average of 3.19 goals per game and had scored at least three goals in four of their last six games.
UNT knew that MTSU was more than capable of coming back from an early deficit and saw the Blue Raiders start to creep back into the game when Regina Thomas scored on a shot into the corner of the net. UNT’s defense failed to clear the ball in front of the goal and Jackie Kerestine couldn’t get there in time to make the save after coming out of the net in the 32nd minute.
Kate Loye then lofted a ball just over Kerestine in the 37th minute to pull MTSU within a goal.
“We made some simple errors that shouldn’t have been made,” UNT senior midfielder Carly McDowell said. “It gave them a little more confidence that they could come back, but we came out strong in the second half to make sure that wouldn’t happen.”
UNT allowed only four shots in the second half and didn’t give up a corner kick. Kerestine made five saves on the night, two of which came in the second half.
“It set me back a little bit for five or 10 minutes, but goalie coach Matt Montayne got me going again,” Kerestine said of the quick pair of goals MTSU scored. “I felt good after that.”
UNT nearly put the game away late in the second half.
Haggerty had a goal called back due to a foul, Young hit the crossbar and then UNT nearly put another ball in the net on a scramble near the goal.
UNT held on anyway, thanks to a solid defensive half that allowed the Mean Green to turn its attention to its game against WKU and a chance to wrap up the Sun Belt’s regular-season title.
“I feel good about our last game,” Brooks said. “We are playing well. We have a few kinks to work out, but by the time Sunday comes and the conference tournament comes, we will be at our best.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org .