BOWLING GREEN, Ky. — Alzee Williams and a few other North Texas players had revenge on their minds heading into a game against Western Kentucky on Saturday.
The Hilltoppers knocked the Mean Green off in the final of last season’s Sun Belt Conference tournament just when it appeared as if UNT was on its way to the NCAA tournament for the second time in three years.
The Mean Green instead ended up slipping a little further behind in the current Sun Belt race following a 70-64 loss at E.A. Diddle Arena that dropped UNT (5-8) to 0-2 in conference play.
UNT started off slow before mounting a furious second-half rally that came up short against the Hilltoppers, who beat the Mean Green 74-70 in the Sun Belt final in March.
“We talked about it,” Williams said. “They sent us home last year. We wanted to come out and get back at them.”
UNT was left trying to find its way out of another tough situation.
The Mean Green has now lost two straight heading into a New Year’s Eve game at Middle Tennessee, one of the Sun Belt’s top teams. The Blue Raiders improved to 10-3 overall and 2-0 in Sun Belt play by hammering Florida International 69-52 on Saturday.
There is a chance UNT could be without starting point guard Chris Jones for the second game of the Sun Belt’s toughest road trip. The sophomore sprained his foot in the second half of UNT’s loss to WKU (10-5, 4-0 Sun Belt).
“Chris did a great job of running the team,” UNT coach Tony Benford said. “Hopefully he will be back Monday.”
Jones scored 10 points to go along with five steals and four assists on a night he was one of just two players to score in double figures for UNT.
Jordan Williams came off the bench to score a game-high 18 points.
Tony Mitchell, UNT’s leading scorer, had just seven points — his second lowest total of the season — but did post 10 rebounds and two blocks.
“Tony rebounded the ball well,” Benford said. “He got some good looks that didn’t go down, but he also passed some up good looks. We need him to be more aggressive.”
T.J. Price scored 16 points to lead WKU, which extended its home-court winning streak to 12 games. George Fant added 14 points and Teeng Akol 13.
Price and Akol sparked an early barrage of 3-pointers from WKU, which dominated the early going and took a 37-26 lead at halftime.
The Hilltoppers scored their first 15 points from behind the arc. Price and Akol each hit two 3’s during WKU’s early surge.
“Coach told us about their 3-point shooters, but once again we didn’t find them early,” Alzee Williams said. “We got in a hole and had to find our way back.”
WKU pushed its lead to 35-20 late in the first half before UNT pulled to within 37-26 at the break.
WKU hit seven 3’s in the first half, when Price went 3-for-3 from behind the arc and scored 11 points.
The Hilltoppers appeared as if they might blow UNT out when they grabbed a 42-30 lead early in the second half on an Akol 3, before UNT rallied.
Jones hit a layup to cap a 16-4 UNT run to tie the score at 46.
“We kept them from hitting 3’s in the second half and played with a lot of heart,” Jordan Williams said.
The Mean Green took the lead a short time later when Clarke Overlander, who came into the night having hit just three of his 27 attempts from behind the arc, nailed his first 3-pointer since Nov. 20 to put UNT up 49-48.
UNT had hit just two of its 34 shots from behind the arc in its last three games, but went 5-for-11 against WKU.
“Clarke had been getting into the gym and had been getting up a lot of shots up,” Benford said. “He did a good job.”
Overlander played nine minutes, tying his high from the previous eight games, and was just one of a few UNT players who stepped out of their normal roles.
Alzee Williams moved over to the point guard spot when Jones went down.
“I was comfortable moving over,” Williams said. “Chris played well, ran the team and got us back in the game.”
WKU took UNT out of it just moments after the Mean Green worked its way back from its early deficit.
The Hilltoppers went on an 8-2 run and never relinquished the lead the rest of the way on a night when UNT was hoping to exact a little revenge.
“This is a tough loss,” Benford said. “They [UNT’s players] wanted some retribution, but we will see them again. We have to continue getting better.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870. His e-mail address is email@example.com.
Western Kentucky 70, North Texas 64
NORTH TEXAS (5-8, 0-2) — Holmen 1-3 2-4 4, Mitchell 3-8 0-0 7, Franklin 2-6 2-2 6, A. Williams 3-9 2-3 8, Jones 4-7 2-2 10, Hardwick 0-0 0-0 0, Patton 2-5 2-3 6, Overlander 1-2 0-0 3, J. Williams 7-13 1-1 18, Stojiljkovic 1-1 0-0 2, Coleman 0-3 0-0 0. Totals 24-57 11-15 64.
WESTERN KENTUCKY (10-5, 4-0) — Fant 5-11 4-6 14, Price 5-13 2-2 16, Akol 4-10 2-2 13, Kaspar 2-6 3-4 8, Harris 3-7 2-5 9, Anyigbo 0-1 0-0 0, Blade 0-0 6-6 6, Akamune 0-0 0-0 0, Drane 2-4 0-1 4, Vasquez 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 21-52 19-26 70.
Halftime — WKU 37-26. 3-point goals — UNT 5-11 (Mitchell 1-3, A. Williams 0-1, Jones 0-1, Overlander 1-2, J. Williams 3-4), WKU 9-19 (Price 4-4, Akol 3-8, Kaspar 1-3, Harris 1-4). Fouled out — Franklin. Rebounds — UNT 33 (Mitchell 10), WKU 37 (Harris 9). Assists — UNT (Jones 4), WKU 11 (Harris 6). Total fouls — UNT 21, WKU 14. A — 4,776.