A few weeks ago, it appeared as if North Texas’ second game against Middle Tennessee would be one of the biggest of the Sun Belt Conference season.
UNT was a unanimous pick to win the league’s West Division, while MTSU was the pick in the East in the preseason coaches poll.
UNT had the Preseason Player of the Year in Tony Mitchell, while the Blue Raiders had four players among the 15 named to the preseason all-conference team.
By the time the teams’ second meeting rolled around, only MTSU was where it was expected to be, and it certainly looked like the Sun Belt’s elite team while cruising to a 72-64 win over the Mean Green on Thursday at the Super Pit, sweeping the season series.
“I think they are as good as any team we have played. I just told [MTSU coach Kermit] Davis that I think that they are an NCAA tournament team,” UNT coach Tony Benford said. “They should get an at-large bid. If you look at their resume, those guys beat Ole Miss and [Vanderbilt]. … They have a really good team.”
MTSU (16-5, 8-2 Sun Belt) also has largely the same team that was picked to be among the league’s elite at the beginning of the season.
That’s nowhere near the case for UNT (8-13, 3-7). The Mean Green has been ravaged by injuries and had four players account for all but 18 of the 200 minutes it played in the game.
Freshman point guard P.J. Hardwick played all 40 minutes, while Tony Mitchell played 39 and Jordan Williams 38.
Alzee Williams missed the game with a sprained medial collateral ligament in his knee, Jacob Holmen is out with a concussion, and Justin Patton was limited to four minutes by a knee injury.
Clarke Overlander came back from a sprained anterior cruciate ligament in his knee and played eight minutes after a four-game absence. Forward Keith Coleman was the only other player available on UNT’s bench and played six minutes.
MTSU, which beat UNT 75-57 on Dec. 31 in Murfreesboro, Tenn., was well aware of UNT’s limitations and cranked up the defensive pressure. The Blue Raiders came into the night allowing 58.3 points a game, the lowest total in the Sun Belt, and looked like the league’s best defensive team while forcing 19 turnovers.
MTSU had nine players on the floor for at least 10 minutes and saw its bench outscore UNT’s 25-1.
“It’s very hard, but we prepared for them,” Jordan Williams said of having so few players available. “We knew that they were going to run it down our throats. Coach put it in our heads that we were going to have to play hard for 40 minutes. We handled it well.”
Williams led four UNT players who finished in double figures with 20 points. Roger Franklin added 14 and Niko Stojiljkovic 12.
Hardwick finished with seven points, four assists and just one turnover despite playing the whole game.
The Mean Green just didn’t have enough firepower to match MTSU, which had four players finish in double figures. Marcos Knight led MTSU with 15 points while James Gallman added 13.
MTSU took the lead for good with a 10-4 run midway through the first half that gave the Blue Raiders a 21-15 lead.
UNT shot just 33 percent (8-for-24) from the floor but hit six of its nine free throw attempts in the first half, which ended with MTSU up 28-23.
MTSU appeared as if it would pull away for good midway through the second half when Gallman hit three 3-pointers in an 11-2 run that gave the Blue Raiders a 50-35 lead.
“They caught us in rotations and we didn’t get to a couple of their shooters,” Benford said. “They don’t shoot a lot of 3’s, but they hit those. That opened the game up.”
UNT made one last run. Williams hit a 3 before Stojiljkovic hit another while drawing a foul from Bruce Massey with 1:23 left.
Stojiljkovic had a chance to pull UNT to within four but missed the free throw, leaving UNT down 66-61. Knight hit two free throws with 53 seconds left to put the Mean Green away.
Benford was pleased with the grit his team showed to get back in the game and with the way it handled a short bench.
“We try to manage the game and let our offense help our defense,” Benford said. “We wanted to be patient offensively. Our plan was to score early in transition if it was there. If not, we wanted to grind it out and score late in the shot clock.”
UNT just turned the ball over too many times — 19 in all — to challenge MTSU, which was intent on turning up the pressure on the shorthanded Mean Green.
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870. His e-mail address is email@example.com .
Middle Tennessee 72, UNT 64
MIDDLE TENNESSEE (16-5, 8-2) — Hunter 5-7 0-0 10, Sulton 5-6 1-4 11, Massey 3-5 0-0 6, M. Knight 5-10 5-6 15, Hammonds 2-5 1-3 5, Gallman 5-8 0-0 13, T. Knight 0-1 2-2 2, S. Jones 1-6 0-0 2, Cintron 2-3 0-0 6, Walker 0-1 0-0 0, J. Jones 1-2 0-0 2. Totals 29-54 9-15 72.
NORTH TEXAS (8-13, 3-7) — Mitchell 4-11 1-3 10, Stojiljkovic 5-9 1-3 12, Franklin 6-8 1-2 14, Hardwick 2-5 3-3 7, Williams 5-16 8-8 20, Patton 0-0 1-2 1, Overlander 0-0 0-0 0, Coleman 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 22-49 15-21 64.
Halftime — MTSU 28-23. 3-point goals — MTSU 5-13 (Massey 0-1, M. Knight 0-2, Hammonds 0-2, Gallman 3-5, Cintron 2-3), UNT 5-17 (Mitchell 1-5, Stojiljkovic 1-4, Franklin 1-1, Williams 2-7). Fouled out — Franklin. Rebounds — MTSU 29 (Jones 5), UNT 32 (Stojiljkovic 9). Assists — MTSU 13 (Knight 5), UNT 7 (Hardwick 4). Total fouls — MTSU 19, UNT 17. A — 3,423.