The plan this season was for a tough nonconference schedule to pay off for North Texas once Sun Belt Conference play arrived.
So far, so good.
UNT went on a key run in the second half Saturday and opened its final campaign in the Sun Belt with a 71-59 win over Louisiana-Lafayette at the Super Pit.
The Ragin’ Cajuns were picked to finish last in the Sun Belt’s West Division and didn’t pose nearly the challenge for UNT that Alabama, Arizona or SMU did.
That was the point for UNT, which appeared to be better prepared for what Sun Belt play will hold thanks to what it went through early in the season.
“We have played a ton of very competitive games, and have asked a lot of players who not been in that situation collegiately to be ‘the one,’” UNT coach Mike Petersen said. “Our returners and our freshmen, they have never had to be the one. That is a different role. It is. Great teams have more than just one. They have a lot of different ways they can go.”
UNT (2-5, 1-0 Sun Belt) found more than a few options in its win over ULL (3-4, 0-2). Alexis Hyder continued her solid freshman season by scoring 16 points to lead four UNT players in double figures.
BreAnna Dawkins scored 13, while Laura McCoy fell just short of a double-double with 12 points and nine assists.
Desiree Nelson scored 14 points, including five during a key 12-0 run that put the Mean Green up for good.
Nelson hit a 3 to start the run, which also included a 3 from McCoy.
“I got some good looks during that run,” Nelson said. “My teammates did a good job of finding me.”
UNT shot the ball particularly well in the second half, hitting 62.5 percent (15-for-24) from the floor.
Dawkins was nearly automatic, hitting all but one of her seven shots in the game. Hyder went 7-for-10.
Ashley Benjamin scored 14 to lead three ULL players who finished in double figures, but she couldn’t help the Ragin’ Cajuns keep pace with UNT, which learned from being in some tight spots in nonconference play.
UNT beat St. Bonaventure in double overtime for its only prior win and also played a triple-overtime game with Alabama and a tight game with SMU.
The Mean Green appeared as if it might put ULL away early after going on an 11-0 run to take a 26-15 on a 3-point play from McCoy.
ULL answered with an 11-0 run of its own and trailed just 30-28 at halftime.
The way UNT responded was perhaps the biggest sign that the Mean Green has benefitted from a tough slate.
“What we did better tonight was we were up 11,” Petersen said. “They made a run, and we bowed up a little bit and said ‘that is enough.’”
When the game was tight late, UNT made the plays it needed to.
Ash’Lynne Evans hit a layup to cap the Mean Green’s run that gave it a 47-34 lead. ULL answered with a five-point spurt, but McCoy drained a 3 to end the run.
UNT was never threatened the rest of the way.
“The players did a good job of responding to the notion that this is when the game gets decided,” Petersen said. “Don’t wait around. We did a good job of that.”
UNT’s players credited their poise in part of the experience they had gained this season.
“You learn from those games and how we lost some of them,” Hyder said.
There is one distinction UNT won’t lose for a while. The Mean Green doesn’t play another conference game until facing Middle Tennessee on Dec. 27.
“We were either going to be in first place in the Sun Belt for a month or the other end of that,” Petersen said. “We don’t play any league games for a while now. We are going to be in first place in our division. That’s a big thing.”
UNT 71, Louisiana-Lafayette 59
LOUISIANA-LAFAYETTE (3-4, 0-2) — Benjamin 6-12 2-2 14, Mills 3-6 0-0 6, Brown 1-4 0-0 2, Wilridge 2-10 1-3 5, Okde 3-13 2-2 10, Schambough 1-3 0-0 3, Prejean 0-0 0-0 0, Veal 4-8 1-1 9, Santiago 4-11 2-3 10. Totals 24-67 8-11 59.
NORTH TEXAS (2-5, 1-0) — Stanley 3-5 2-3 8, Hyder 7-10 2-2 16, McCoy 4-8 1-1 12, Dawkins 6-7 1-1 13, Nelson 4-12 5-5 14, Christian 0-1 0-0 0, Evans 2-2 0-0 4, Blakely 2-3 0-0 4, Tac 0-0 0-0 0, Goodwin 0-3 0-0 0. Totals 28-51 11-12 71.
Halftime — UNT 30-28. 3-point goals — ULL 3-15 (Mills 0-1, Okde 2-8, Schambough 1-3, Veal 0-3), UNT 4-12 (Hyder 0-1, McCoy 3-5, Nelson 1-3, Goodwin 0-3). Fouled out — none. Rebounds — ULL 34 (Santiago 8), UNT 35 (Evans 8). Assists — ULL 9 (Wilridge 3), UNT 15 (McCoy 9). Total fouls — ULL 15, UNT 18.