North Texas head coach Tony Benford talked to his players about the opportunity that was headed their way beginning with a game against Arkansas-Little Rock on Saturday.
UNT came into the night down, but not out in the race for the Sun Belt Conference West Division title and had three straight games against its main competition for the crown — UALR, Louisiana-Lafayette and Arkansas State — coming up.
UNT’s chances to capitalize on that opportunity diminished significantly with a 62-57 loss to the Trojans at the Super Pit.
The Mean Green (8-14, 3-8) charged back from a seven-point, second-half deficit before Jordan Williams brought a charged-up crowd to its feet with a 3-pointer that gave UNT a 37-35 lead.
Like so many other times this season, it was all downhill from there for the Mean Green, which lost for the second time on a two-game homestand that began with a loss to Middle Tennessee on Thursday.
“They are leading the West,” Benford said of UALR. “This was a crucial game for us to make a run at winning the West Division. We have to go on the road and try to steal some games now.”
That could be tough to do as UNT continues to fight through a tough injury situation that has left Benford with few options when it comes to his lineup and rotation.
Three UNT players combined to score all but two of the Mean Green’s points in its loss to UALR (14-9, 8-4). Five players were on the floor for at least 31 minutes.
Alzee Williams came back after a two-game absence due to a knee injury, but UNT’s bench was still outscored 24-0 by the Trojans.
Jordan Williams led UNT with 22 points, Roger Franklin added 20 and Tony Mitchell had 13. Niko Stojiljkovic was the only other player who scored for UNT and finished with two points.
UALR had eight players on the floor for at least 19 minutes and eventually wore UNT down.
Will Neighbour, Josh Hagins and James White each scored 11 points for UALR.
UNT appeared as if it might be able to overcome a lack of depth when it came back from a seven-point halftime deficit with an 8-0 run.
Williams capped the run with a 3 that gave the Mean green a 37-35 lead at the 11:51 mark.
“It was a big shot,” Williams said. “The crowd got into it, and we picked our intensity up.”
The momentum was short-lived.
UALR responded with an 8-0 run and led the rest of the way.
UNT looked back on that point of the game as its opportunity to open up a lead and take control, a chance it squandered.
“That is exactly what it is,” Franklin said. “Like coach Benford says, it’s hard fighting back. Once we had that lead, that is when we need to put our foot on the gas and keep going. Once we get over that hump, we can’t go back.”
That is exactly what UNT did more than once.
Mitchell gave UNT a 17-16 lead with a 3-pointer in the first half before UALR answered with a 12-2 run, keyed by a four-point play. Ben Dillard hit a 3 before being run over by Williams and cashed in with the ensuing free throw.
Hagins hit a 3 to cap the run and put UALR up 28-19.
UNT immediately went on a 6-0 run, but trailed 32-25 at halftime after UALR scored the last four points of the half.
The Mean Green appeared as if it might be able to break though in the second half behind Williams, who posted his second straight game of scoring at least 20 points.
Williams said he felt like he needed to provide UNT a spark offensively, especially with the season quickly winding down.
UNT knows its chances to get hot late in the year are quickly disappearing.
One vanished when UALR raced past UNT in the second half Saturday night.
“It’s now or never,” Franklin said. “We need everyone battling the way Jordan is battling. Niko is starting to come along. We need everyone to play like that. We still have games left and are going to keep fighting. We can’t get negative right now.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Arkansas-Little Rock 62, UNT 57
ARKANSAS-LITTLE ROCK (14-9, 8-4) — Javes 0-4 1-2 1, Neighbour 4-7 3-4 11, Hagins 3-6 3-4 11, Isler 3-9 3-5 9, Dillard 2-4 1-1 6, Gillon 3-4 0-1 8, Osse 1-4 0-0 3, Billings 0-3 0-0 0, Lockhart 0-1 0-0 0, White 4-8 3-4 11, Leeper 1-1 0-0 2. Totals 21-51 14-21 62.
NORTH TEXAS (8-14, 3-8) — Mitchell 3-9 6-9 13, Stojiljkovic 0-6 2-2 2, Franklin 8-15 4-6 20, Hardwick 0-3 0-0 0, J. Williams 7-15 5-8 22, A. Williams 0-3 0-0 0, Overlander 0-0 0-0 0, Coleman 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 18-52 17-25 57.
Halftime — UALR 32-25. 3-point goals — UALR 6-13 (Hagins 2-3, Isler 0-3, Dillard 1-2, Gillon 2-2, Osse 1-2, White 0-1), UNT 4-14 (Mitchell 1-3, Stojiljkovic 0-3, Franklin 0-1, J. Williams 3-6, A. Williams 0-1). Fouled out — Mitchell. Rebounds — UALR 31 (Neighbour 6), UNT 37 (Franklin 12). Assists — UALR 7 (Neighbour, Hagins, Gillon 2), UNT 5 (Stojiljkovic 3). Total fouls — UALR 18, UNT 17. A — 3,997.