North Texas is right where it hoped to be with several Sun Belt Conference games in the books.
The Mean Green struggled through a tough nonconference slate, righted the ship just in time, and following a 79-51 win over Louisiana-Monroe on Saturday is 3-2 in league play with a huge game coming up against Arkansas-Little Rock.
The Trojans — a traditional Sun Belt power who have advanced to the NCAA tournament in each of the last three seasons — are just a half-game in front of the Mean Green in the Sun Belt West Division standings.
UNT (4-10, 3-2) will face UALR (11-3, 4-2) at the Stephens Center on Wednesday.
“I told our players one of the really fun things to do in college basketball is to play relevant, meaningful games in January and February,” UNT coach Mike Petersen said. “To play that game that everyone your conference wants to know what the score was, that is a pretty cool deal. We will have that opportunity on Wednesday, and will have the opportunity because we took care of our business at home.”
No one played a bigger role in the win over ULM (2-12, 0-5) than Laura McCoy. UNTs starting point guard scored a career-high 20 points to go along with five steals, three rebounds and two assists.
“I have been getting a lot of shots up,” McCoy said. “That paid off tonight.”
McCoy was one of four players who finished in double figures and helped UNT post one of its more efficient games of the season. UNT shot 64.3 percent (18 for 28) in the first half and 50.9 percent (27 for 53) for the game.
UNT’s Sara Stanley scored 15 points. Loryn Goodwin added 12 points, and Alexis Hyder scored 11 points to go along with eight rebounds.
ULM couldn’t keep up while trying to crack the zone defense that UNT has settled into using.
“We are pretty disruptive right now,” Petersen said. “Our zone package has enough wrinkles now that people are not getting comfortable against us.”
That was apparent early when UNT went on a 14-0 run after ULM scored the first two points of the game. The Mean Green led 44-27 at halftime, marking the second straight game the Mean Green has gotten off to a quick start.
UNT had not scored more than 37 points in the opening half of a game since a season-opening loss to Texas State. The Mean Green scored a season-high 50 points in the opening half of a win over Troy on Wednesday and followed that performance up with another hot start against ULM.
UNT was particularly hot from beyond the 3-point arc, where the Mean Green hit five of its eight shots. McCoy went 3 for 6 from deep, while Goodwin hit both of her attempts.
“Coach told us before the game that our main focus should be to come out strong in those first four minutes and get a lead,” Stanley said.
ULM never got back into the game after UNT’s early run and shot only 32.1 percent (18 for 56) on the night. Ashleigh Simmons led the Warhawks with 15 points, while Jae Shin added 14.
UNT quickly turned its attention to UALR. The Trojans won the Sun Belt tournament last season in Hot Springs, Ark., to grab their third straight NCAA bid.
UNT will enter that game off consecutive wins, a milestone the Mean Green had not reached all season before toppling ULM at the Super Pit.
“It’s exciting,” McCoy said. “These last two games gave us the confidence that we need to go in there and beat them. It will be difficult, but if we take care of business, we should come out of there with a win.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
North Texas 79, Louisiana-Monroe 51
LOUISIANA-MONROE (2-12, 0-5) — Hunter 1-7 0-0 2, Simmons 5-15 5-8 15, A. Tugler 3-12 1-1 8, E. Tugler 0-0 0-0 0, Shaw 2-6 1-2 6, Shin 5-10 0-0 14, Aune 0-0 0-0 0, Taylor 0-1 0-0 0, Gray 1-3 2-4 4, Brooks 1-1 0-0 2, Holley 0-0 0-0 0, Lee 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 18-56 9-15 51.
NORTH TEXAS (4-10, 3-2) — Stanley 6-10 3-4 15, Hyder 5-7 1-6 11, McCoy 5-12 6-6 20, Dawkins 2-6 0-0 4, Goodwin 3-7 4-10 12, Christian 2-3 3-4 8, Evans 0-0 0-0 0, Blakely 2-5 0-0 4, Tac 2-3 1-1 5. Totals 27-53 18-31 79.
Halftime — UNT 44-27. 3-point goals — ULM 6-19 (Tugler 1-6, Shaw 1-3, Shin 4-9, Lee 0-1), UNT 7-16 (McCoy 4-9, Goodwin 2-5, Christian 1-2). Fouled out — Dawkins, Christian. Rebounds — ULM 31 (Simmons 7), UNT 44 (Hyder 8). Assists — ULM 9 (Simmons, A. Tugler, E. Tugler, Shaw 2), UNT 15 (Dawkins, Hyder 4). Total fouls — ULM 24, UNT 21. A — 1,178.