What began as a tough start to the Sun Belt Conference season became worse for North Texas on Saturday night — much worse.
UNT lost a tight game at home to Louisiana-Lafayette in its first league game and then fell on the road to Middle Tennessee and Western Kentucky, two of the league’s traditional powers.
None of those losses compared to falling 81-68 Saturday to Louisiana-Monroe in a battle to get out of the Sun Belt West Division basement.
UNT (6-10, 1-4 SBC) led late before the Warhawks stormed back at the Super Pit with a 21-7 run to close the game.
UNT was a unanimous pick to win West title, while ULM (3-8, 2-3) was picked to finish last.
“It’s definitely frustrating,” UNT coach Tony Benford said. “This was a great opportunity for us. This was a struggling team coming in and we were at home. I wish I had my whole team, but you have to play with the team that you have.”
UNT was without several key players. Jacob Holmen, a senior forward who is averaging 6.0 points a game, missed his second straight game with a foot injury, while starting point guard Chris Jones missed his second straight game after breaking his foot against Western Kentucky.
What made matters worse was that UNT was also without junior guard Alzee Williams. UNT’s third-leading scorer at 10.3 points a game was suspended for a violation of team rules.
All five of UNT’s starters played at least 29 minutes. Only senior forward Niko Stojiljkovic saw meaningful time off the bench, scoring two points in 17 minutes.
“Alzee Williams broke a team policy,” Benford said. “We are very disappointed in that. You can’t expect a freshman [P.J. Hardwick] to play 40 minutes. It was tough for P.J. to do that.”
UNT leaned on the experienced players it had left against ULM.
Justin Patton, who had scored only 36 points all year, made his second straight start and finished with 16. Jordan Williams also scored 16 points, while Tony Mitchell added 15 points and a team-high six rebounds.
“I was letting it come to me,” Patton said. “My teammates found me open. I tried to step up since we had some players out.”
For a while in the second half it appeared as if the trio might be able to lead UNT past ULM. Roger Franklin grabbed an offensive rebound and hit a putback to give UNT a 61-60 lead with just under six minutes left.
The game quickly got away from UNT after that.
Amos Olatayo and Jayon James hit back-to-back layups to spark an 8-0 ULM surge that had the Warhawks off and running.
UNT cut a seven-point deficit to four at 68-64 on three straight free throws from Mitchell, giving the Mean Green life with 2:03 left.
ULM essentially put the game away seconds later when Marcelis Hansberry just beat the shot clock with a 3-pointer that put the Warhawks up 71-64.
UNT never threatened the rest of the way.
James led ULM with 19 points, while Olatayo added 17.
“It’s tough with guys missing, but I don’t think continuity is a problem,” Jordan Williams said. “We just have to finish at the end. We just needed to get stops and rebounds.”
ULM finished with a 30-19 edge in rebounds just one game after Mitchell finished with 15 rebounds by himself in a win over Troy.
Mitchell missed practice with a minor knee injury on Friday, but Benford said that was no excuse for the way UNT struggled on the glass.
“We shouldn’t be outrebounded,” Benford said.
UNT was never able to gain control of a game that was tied at 30 after the Mean Green came back from an early seven-point deficit.
ULM hit three 3s during a 10-1 run that gave the Warhawks a 21-13 lead. UNT answered when Jordan Williams hit a 3-pointer and followed up a short time later with a dunk that sparked a 16-0 UNT run that gave the Mean Green a 28-21 lead.
Williams scored 13 points in the first half, when he went 5-for-8 from the floor and hit both of his 3-point attempts.
UNT couldn’t pull away despite Williams’ solid start and saw ULM go on a 7-0 run late in the half. The game was close from then on until ULM went on its late run.
“We are going to keep pushing, keep coaching them hard and have them work hard,” Benford said. “That is the only way I know.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Louisiana-Monroe 81, UNT 68
LOUISIANA-MONROE (3-8, 2-3) — James 6-10 7-8 19, Brown 1-2 0-0 2, Hansberry 5-7 2-2 13, McCray 5-8 0-0 11, Mackey 2-5 4-5 10, Olatayo 6-12 4-5 17, Koszuta 2-3 0-0 6, Lindsey 1-1 0-0 3. Totals 28-48 17-20 81.
NORTH TEXAS (6-10, 1-4) — Patton 6-11 4-4 16, T. Mitchell 4-8 5-9 15, Franklin 3-6 2-5 8, Hardwick 4-6 0-0 8, Williams 6-12 2-3 16, A. Mitchell 0-0 0-0 0, Overlander 0-1 0-0 0, Stojiljkovic 0-4 2-2 2, Coleman 1-1 1-2 3. Totals 24-49 16-25 68.
Halftime — Tied, 30-30. 3-point goals — ULM 8-16 (Hansberry 1-2, McCray 1-3, Mackey 2-5, Olatayo 1-2, Koszuta 2-3, Lindsey 1-1), UNT 4-12 (T. Mitchell 2-5, Williams 2-4, Overlander 0-1, Stojiljkovic 0-2). Fouled out — Brown, Lindsey. Rebounds — ULM 30 (James 10), UNT 19 (Mitchell 6). Assists — ULM 13 (James 6), UNT 12 (Hardwick 6). Total fouls — ULM 20, UNT 12. A — 3,361.