Mike Petersen faced what seemed like a double whammy early in his first season at North Texas.
The former Wake Forest coach had to head out on the road to play Oklahoma and Sun Belt Conference powers Western Kentucky and Middle Tennessee, not to mention SMU, Alabama and New Mexico — all in the first six weeks of the season. That would have been tough to do, no matter whom Petersen had on his roster.
What made the schedule tougher — and the way UNT handled it even more impressive — is that the Mean Green isn’t exactly overflowing with experienced players.
UNT has a junior point guard in Laura McCoy, a senior post player in Sara Stanley, and a lot of young players filling key roles.
The journey hasn’t been easy, but UNT finds itself in an unexpectedly good spot tonight for its game at Arkansas-Little Rock.
The Mean Green is playing for first place in the Sun Belt West Division, thanks largely to a host of young players who have adjusted to a new system — and in some cases playing in college for the first time — on the fly.
“The biggest thing we did was we kept working toward getting better and stayed with the process of getting better,” Petersen said. “Our younger players have matured a little bit. I am not a big believer in frustration. That never solved anything. We were disappointed, but we never got frustrated.”
UNT instead got better, even during a five-game losing streak, and has quietly built a case that it is a program on the rise, despite its 4-10 record.
All three of UNT’s top scorers are either freshmen or sophomores who have been gaining confidence over the last few weeks. The Mean Green lost games that went down to the final possession at OU, MTSU and WKU before coming back to handily beat Troy and Louisiana-Monroe.
Those back-to-back wins were a small step in the right direction for a program that hasn’t posted a winning season since the 2005-06 campaign.
“To know that we can compete against teams like Oklahoma as young as we are builds confidence and makes us all the more determined to do well this year,” freshman forward Alexis Hyder said. “It helps us maintain our focus.”
Hyder is one of the reasons UNT has been able to compete with teams like OU. The former Austin Lyndon B. Johnson standout is averaging a team-high 12.9 points a game. Sophomore BreAnna Dawkins is adding 11.0 points a game and freshman Loryn Goodwin 10.5.
That trio’s performance helped put the Mean Green in position to play a key game against UALR, which knocked off MTSU in overtime in last season’s Sun Belt tournament final.
The Trojans (11-3) are 4-2 in Sun Belt play. UNT is 3-2 in Sun Belt play and already has the toughest road trip in the league — the swing to MTSU and WKU — out of the way.
“We are excited about this game,” Dawkins said. “I know that it isn’t going to be easy, though. We are going to have to go up there and fight through it.”
That might be what Petersen has been most pleased about when it comes to the way his team has progressed.
Dawkins started in the first game of her sophomore season, when she was the only underclassman in the lineup. Since then, UNT’s lineup has gotten progressively younger while the Mean Green has gotten better.
Hyder became a starter in the second game of the season, while Goodwin has started UNT’s last four games.
If UNT sticks with its lineup from its last game tonight, UNT will have Hyder, Goodwin and Dawkins on the floor with upperclassmen McCoy and Stanley.
Petersen said UNT has evolved, adjusting its philosophy both offensively and defensively as players like Hyder and Goodwin have improved.
The key for Petersen has been showing patience during the process.
“Three of our four leading scorers are freshmen or sophomores,” Petersen said. “That is a good thing, but young players are going to make some mistakes that older players usually don’t. You can’t accept them, but you also cannot freak out and lose your mind. Sometimes as coaches we get wrapped up in what players don’t do instead of being wrapped up in what they can do. Let’s concentrate on what we can do, and do it really well.”
That approach helped UNT stay the course when times were tough. It also helped that UNT had a few older players to provide guidance. McCoy had started 35 games heading into the season, while Stanley had started 13.
Petersen called McCoy the best point guard he has coached in terms of being a conduit between him and the rest of the players on the floor.
“It helps to have older players because they can give us a heads-up and tell us what some of the other teams in the league are like,” Hyder said.
McCoy and Stanley know that UNT will be in for a challenge tonight against UALR, which has beaten the Mean Green in nine of the last 10 meetings.
The fact that so much is riding on the game is a sign that UNT has come a long way in a short time.
“We are excited, but we are also hungry,” Hyder said. “Being freshmen, we want to make a mark in our first year.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org .
LEARNING ON THE FLY
North Texas has three underclassmen in its lineup. The following is a look at the trio:
BreAnna Dawkins, Soph., G
Averages 11.0 points and 3.6 rebounds a game; has started all 14 games
Alexis Hyder, Fr., F
Leads team with averages of 12.9 points and 7.7 rebounds a game
Loryn Goodwin, Fr., G
Leads the Sun Belt with 3.8 steals per game to go with 10.5 points a game