North Texas spent a lot of time over the last few days working on its halfcourt defense in preparation for a huge game against Lehigh later this week and its return to Sun Belt Conference play after that.
The unforeseen side benefit came Sunday, when UNT needed one of its better defensive performances in recent memory to bail it out against Southeastern Louisiana, a Southland Conference team with only one win this season.
SLU had a chance to tie the game with just under six minutes left.
That was a bit of a stunner for UNT and a hushed afternoon crowd at the Super Pit, which saw the Mean Green go on a late run and hang on for a 45-40 win.
The 45 points UNT scored was its lowest total in a win since the Mean Green posted a 37-36 victory over Air Force at the Snake Pit in 1963, before the Super Pit opened.
“It paid off,” UNT senior forward Roger Franklin said of UNT’s focus on defense. “Our halfcourt defense has improved dramatically from where it used to be. We are starting to figure out who we want to be as a team.”
UNT head coach Tony Benford has often spoken about transforming the Mean Green into a tough defensive team that opponents have a hard time cracking.
UNT (5-6) showed signs it could be taking steps toward that goal while holding a third straight opponent under 70 points.
SLU (1-7) shot 25 percent from the field (14-for-56) and hit only three of its 14 3-point attempts.
“We were good defensively,” Benford said. “We put a lot of emphasis on becoming a better defensive team this week. We worked on challenging 3-point shooters. They are not a great 3-point shooting team, but we got to their guys who can make shots.”
UNT needed a lot of time to put the Lions away despite a solid defensive performance.
The Mean Green led 19-18 at halftime and was up only 36-35 at the 5:27 mark of the second half when Brandon Fortenberry made one of two free-throw attempts with a chance to tie the game.
UNT responded with an 8-0 run and pulled away for the win. Tony Mitchell connected on four straight free throws to start the surge before Jordan Williams hit a jumper and a layup.
Mitchell, who was averaging 14.2 points a game, had an off day offensively with eight points to go along with 10 rebounds.
Franklin led UNT with 12 points, all of which he scored in the first half, when he carried the Mean Green.
Alzee Williams added 11 points and was the only other UNT player who scored in double figures. Jordan Williams was suspended for the first half for a violation of team rules but came back to score eight points in the second half.
Fortenberry scored a game-high 19 points and added 11 rebounds for the Lions, who lost starting guard Roosevelt Johnson less than three minutes into the game when he ran into Mitchell.
Johnson didn’t get up for more than a minute, looked dazed and left the game.
SLU finished with a 51-42 edge in rebounds in what was a physical game throughout.
“It reminded me of the old Southwest Conference games at Texas Tech,” said Benford, a former Tech player. “We used to play a lot of games in the 40s with a 45-second shot clock. It reminded me of those games, grinding it out.”
UNT will continue to take that approach but knows it has to improve on the offensive end if it is to handle a tough upcoming stretch with games against Western Kentucky and Middle Tennessee — two of the Sun Belt’s better teams — after its showdown with Lehigh.
“We didn’t get into a flow offensively for whatever reason,” Benford said. “They did a good job of packing around Tony inside. We tried to move him around. They also did a good job of keeping us out of transition.”
Alzee Williams said that while UNT’s focus has been on the defensive end, the Mean Green has not totally neglected the other end of the court, especially when it comes to outside shooting.
“We have been working hard on our outside shooting every day in practice,” Williams said. “Eventually, it will get better.”
UNT will have to improve if it wants to knock off Lehigh, which is 8-2 and has won seven straight.
The Mean Green will entertain the Mountain Hawks on Thursday.
“We have a quick turnaround,” Alzee Williams said. “Coach has talked about it a lot. It’s a big game for us going into the Christmas break. It’s one that we have to get.”
The same was true of UNT’s game against SLU.
“We needed a win,” Franklin said. “We are trying to go into the Christmas break and back into conference play at 6-6. We took care of business. It wasn’t the prettiest win, but a W is a W.”
Alzee Williams scored the 500th point of his career against SLU on a layup in the first half and now has 509 points. … Mitchell finished with three blocks, tying him with Quincy Williams for second place on UNT’s career list with 98.
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870. His e-mail address is email@example.com .
NORTH TEXAS 45, SOUTHEASTERN LOUISIANA 40
SOUTHEASTERN LOUISIANA (1-7) — Woods 1-1 0-2 2, Johnson 0-1 0-0 0, Evans 0-5 0-0 0, Fortenberry 7-17 3-6 19, Ricard 0-16 4-4 4, Benton 3-7 2-2 9, James 1-2 0-0 2, Campbell 0-1 0-0 0, Nelson 0-3 0-2 0, Petrovcic 0-1 0-0 0, Ochie2-2 0-0 4. Totals 14-56 9-16 40.
NORTH TEXAS (5-6) — Holmen 1-6 0-0 2, Mitchell 1-9 6-8 8, Franklin 6-11 0-0 12, A. Williams 5-12 1-3 11, Jones 0-7 1-2 1, Hardwick 1-3 0-0 2, Patton 0-2 1-2 1, Overlander 0-2 0-0 0, J. Williams 4-6 0-1 8, Stojiljkovic 0-1 0-0 0, Coleman 0-2 0-0 0. Totals 18-61 9-16 45.
Halftime — UNT 19-18. 3-point goals — SLU 3-14 (Evans 0-3, Fortenberry 2-6, Ricard 0-2, Benton 1-1, Nelson 0-2), UNT 0-11 (Holmen 0-2, Mitchell 0-3, Jones 0-2, Patton 0-1, Overlander 0-2, J. Williams 0-1). Fouled out — none. Rebounds — SLU 51 (Fortenberry 11), UNT 42 (Mitchell 10). Assists — SLU 4 (Evans, Fortenberry, Ricard, Petrovcic), UNT 4 (A. Williams, Jones, Hardwick, Patton). Total fouls — SLU 16, UNT 15. A — 2,645.