All Jordan Williams had to do was look around to realize what North Texas needed from him the last few weeks.
UNT has dealt with a run of injuries unlike anything it’s seen in years, taking players like Alzee Williams and Clarke Overlander out of a lineup that already was decimated by season-ending injuries to Chris Jones and Brandan Walton.
“I’ve been trying to step up for the team,” Jordan Williams said. “We have players out and are struggling on offense. My teammates have been getting me good looks, and I have been getting to the free-throw line.”
The result has been a run of solid play by Williams heading into UNT’s doubleheader today at the Super Pit again Sun Belt West Division leader Arkansas-Little Rock. The men will play after the women’s game at 5 p.m.
Jordan Williams has hit 20 straight free throws and is coming off a 20-point outing in a loss to Middle Tennessee on Thursday.
UNT (8-13, 3-7 Sun Belt) will have junior Alzee Williams back after he missed the Mean Green’s last game with a sprained knee, but still will be shorthanded. UNT had five players each log at least 31 minutes in its loss to MTSU.
Overlander is recovering from a sprained knee, while Justin Patton also is not at full strength due to the lingering effects of knee surgery. Both played sparingly against MTSU.
UNT will need Jordan Williams, who is averaging 11.8 points per game, to be at his best with so many other players at less than 100 percent and the Mean Green struggling to score. UNT hasn’t cracked the 70-point mark since beating Troy 76-59 on Jan. 3, falling short of the mark in six straight games.
“Jordan needs to produce,” UNT coach Tony Benford said. “We need him to score with the numbers we have right now. The main thing with Jordan is to attack. When he does that, it opens up his midrange game and opens up his 3-point shot.”
Attacking has been an emphasis for Jordan Williams since the summer, when Benford began encouraging him to get to the paint instead of settling for 3-point shots. Williams hasn’t missed a free throw in the four games since UNT lost to UALR (13-9, 7-4) on Jan. 10.
Jordan Williams has taken just 12 shots from behind the arc in those games and hit three of them.
“Coach has told me to be more aggressive,” Williams said. “I used to settle a lot and take 3’s. I have to get to the lane, get fouled and get to the line.”
Williams has been automatic once he has gotten there in UNT’s last two games, going 8 for 8 from the line in each contest. He said he has been working on his free-throw shooting before and after practice every day.
UNT is hoping that work pays off in what Benford sees as a pivotal game. UNT has struggled all year, but no team in the West has run away from the rest of the division. The Mean Green could pull within two games of UALR in the loss column with a win today.
The Trojans rank fourth in the Sun Belt with an average of 65.8 points allowed a game and have one of the league’s better big men in Will Neighbour, who will match up with Tony Mitchell.
Mitchell is averaging 14.1 points and 8.5 rebounds per game, while Neighbour is posting 11.6 points and 6.9 rebounds a game.
The women’s game is just as important in the chase for a West Division title. UNT (7-12, 6-4) is just behind Arkansas State (10-9, 7-3) and just ahead of UALR (12-7, 5-6) in the division.
UNT beat UALR on the road earlier this season.
“We have a two-game lead in the loss column and will also have the tiebreaker if we beat them here,” UNT women’s coach Mike Petersen said. “It’s a huge game for both teams.”
UNT will have to bounce back from one of its more disappointing outings of the season if it is to capitalize on that opportunity. The Mean Green took a 15-2 lead on MTSU, a traditional Sun Belt power, on Thursday before the Blue Raiders blew past UNT 60-47.
The Mean Green’s Loryn Goodwin continued her recent run of success by scoring 21 points five nights after scoring 25 in a loss at Florida Atlantic.
UNT couldn’t capitalize on that performance on a night MTSU grabbed 21 offensive rebounds and scored 16 second-chance points. The Blue Raiders outscored UNT 32-10 in the paint, helping MTSU overcome an off night shooting.
MTSU shot just 35.3 percent from the field. UNT had an even harder time, shooting 29.4 percent.
“We have given up 21 offensive rebounds two games in a row,” Petersen said. “That can’t happen. We had a positive rebound margin heading into our last two games and were outrebounded in both. We have to go back to being a team that outrebounds its opponents.”
That goal could be a little harder to reach for UNT tonight without Braylah Blakely, who pulled a quadriceps in UNT’s loss to MTSU. The sophomore, who is averaging 3.5 points and 3.1 rebounds a game, will not play tonight.
The loss of Blakely will make containing UALR guard Taylor Gault more challenging. Gault is among the Sun Belt’s top scorers with an average of 16.2 points per game.
UALR had lost four straight but hammered Florida Atlantic 77-45 in its last outing.
“They crushed Atlantic,” Petersen said. “I watched it and it wasn’t that close, if that is possible. They played super hard, were really aggressive and were in transition the whole game.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.