North Texas spent the better part of three weeks on the verge of breaking out of a late-season slump.
The Mean Green was in a game with Arkansas-Little Rock late, nearly toppled Arkansas State before letting a late lead slip away in an overtime loss and rallied late only to see Western Kentucky pull away in the closing minutes.
Those near misses made a win over Florida International on Saturday all the more satisfying, and made building on that victory even more important for the Mean Green.
UNT will look to do just that today when it visits Louisiana-Monroe for the second half of a doubleheader that will begin with the women’s game at 5:15 p.m. at Fant-Ewing Coliseum.
“This is a chance to get something going,” UNT senior forward Niko Stojiljkovic said. “We played pretty well. We have to win on the road and keep our confidence level going up.”
Knocking off FIU was a good start. UNT (9-17, 4-11 Sun Belt) set a school record by shooting 75 percent from the floor and also knocked down 84.4 percent of its free throws (27 of 32).
That type of production was a dramatic improvement for UNT, which struggled during its losing streak to get quality shots — or make them. The Mean Green failed to crack the 70-point mark twice during its skid, falling at the Super Pit to UALR (62-57) and Western Kentucky (70-59).
“We are getting better,” UNT coach Tony Benford said. “We have been in games; we just haven’t finished. The theme before last game was to attack and finish. We wanted to get the ball in to the paint and finish. We did that and shared the basketball.”
UNT scored 30 points in the paint on a night when the Mean Green went inside to Roger Franklin at every opportunity. Tony Mitchell got into early foul trouble, which opened up more opportunities for Franklin, who finished with 21 points.
Franklin should get plenty more opportunities as UNT looks to avenge one of its more baffling losses of the season. ULM (3-17, 2-12) counts an 81-68 blowout of the Mean Green on Jan. 5 as one of its three wins.
ULM’s other wins are a 65-64 nail-biter against Florida Atlantic and a 68-61 overtime win over Southeastern Louisiana.
UNT hasn’t won consecutive games since December when it beat Jackson State and Southeastern Louisiana. The Mean Green will try to do it again tonight.
“We needed a win,” UNT guard P.J. Hardwick said. “It gives us confidence, but we are not satisfied. It’s just one win. I see a lot of smiles at practice, but we have to keep going.”
The UNT women are in the opposite position heading into their game against the Warhawks after losing consecutive games to Sun Belt East Division power Western Kentucky and FIU.
Loryn Goodwin hit a UNT freshman-record seven 3-pointers in the Mean Green’s loss to FIU, but not much else has gone right lately. UNT had a chance to move into a tie for first place in the West Division with a win over WKU but has fallen into third place.
Arkansas State leads the division at 10-5, while Arkansas-Little Rock has jumped into second at 8-6.
The one advantage UNT (9-15, 8-7) seems to have is a favorable schedule down the stretch. ULM has improved since falling to UNT 79-51 earlier in the season but is still just 5-9 in league play. UNT then will visit Troy (5-18) on Saturday.
The Mean Green has fared better on the road in conference play, posting a 4-3 record as opposed to being just a .500 team (4-4) at home.
“We need these two wins to get back to where we want to be,” UNT guard Laura McCoy said. “We have slipped up a little bit. It just seems like we are not as focused at home. We have to work on it. I can’t pinpoint why, but it’s been a trend all year.”
UNT now will face a pair of teams hitting their stride late in the season. ULM (7-16) beat FAU and FIU on the road, then turned around and beat rival Louisiana-Lafayette.
Troy pulled off arguably the Sun Belt stunner of the year last week, beating Middle Tennessee in Murfreesboro, Tenn.
UNT beat Troy 87-71 last month.
“The challenge now is that we are going on the road to play two teams that we beat pretty soundly,” UNT women’s coach Mike Petersen said. “Both of these teams are playing a lot better.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org .