MOBILE, Ala. — For most of the last few weeks, North Texas had been holding out hope that its season could turn around with a few wins late in the year and one important addition — point guard Chris Jones.
Jones hadn’t set foot on the court since breaking his right foot in a loss to Western Kentucky on Dec. 29.
UNT began the process of working him back into the rotation Saturday night at South Alabama and saw plenty of positive signs, ones the Mean Green hung on to as an indication its season could soon turn despite suffering a 69-57 loss to the Jaguars at the Mitchell Center.
The loss snapped a two-game winning streak and left the Mean Green facing the reality that it will be seeded no higher than No. 9 in the Sun Belt Conference tournament next month.
“You have to give those guys credit,” UNT head coach Tony Benford said. “It was senior night and they came out and played well, especially their seniors. We didn’t do a good job executing of getting stops and they outrebounded us.”
UNT (11-19, 6-13) could need some time to remake its team late in the year now that Jones has returned after missing 16 games.
It certainly appeared that way during the Mean Green’s loss to the Jaguars (16-10, 13-5).
UNT went 1 for 11 from 3-point range, scored 24 points in the first half, shot 33.8 percent (23-for-68) for the game and was outrebounded 48-39.
Alzee Williams led UNT with 15 points. Tony Mitchell added a double-double with 11 points and 11 rebounds, but no other UNT player scored in double figures.
Mychal Ammons scored a game-high 18 points to lead four players who finished in double figures for USA.
Javier Carter posted a double-double with 10 points and 12 rebounds for the Jaguars, while Augustine Rubit scored nine points and pulled down 15 rebounds.
UNT is hoping Jones’ return will help the Mean Green become the team it was expected to be at the beginning of the season. UNT was picked to win the Sun Belt West Division but has struggled with injuries and inconsistency all year.
“I’m glad to be back traveling with the team and not back in Denton by myself,” Jones said. “I had some jitters, but I got a game in now. I needed this one to get back into it. I was able to get out there, make some moves and start feeling comfortable.”
Jones was averaging 10.2 points and 5.0 assists a game before he was injured. He’s widely considered one of the best playmakers in the Sun Belt.
Jones’ return should help UNT significantly in that regard. The Mean Green came into the night ranked 10th out of 11 teams in the Sun Belt with an average of 10.3 assists per game.
“It will help a lot to get Chris back,” Williams said. “We will have more perimeter guys, and he is the kind of player who gets everyone involved.”
Even with Jones back, UNT struggled against USA.
The Jaguars led the entire way and broke the game open with a 13-4 run in the first half that gave the Jaguars a 20-11 lead.
UNT trailed 28-17 late in the first half before making a run behind Roger Franklin. The senior scored four points in a 7-2 run that cut USA’s lead to 30-24 at halftime.
UNT missed all seven of its 3-point attempts in first half and shot 31.4 percent (11 for 35) from the floor.
The Mean Green didn’t fare much better in the second half when USA quickly built a double-figure lead and coasted to the win.
“We missed some easy buckets and didn’t hit from the free-throw line,” Williams said. “That made it tough on us.”
Jones’ return should help rectify some of those problems.
“It will help a lot to have Chris back,” Benford said. “He had six assists and one turnover in 20 minutes. His timing was off. We have put in some new stuff since he has been out. He did a good job even though he was sucking wind a little bit. He will be a great addition.”
The key now is for UNT to adjust to having Jones back. Jones is confident it won’t take long for him to settle back into his role as one of the Mean Green’s top threats.
“Everyone will have to get used to me being out there,” Jones said. “Once we do that, we will be fine. We have time.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-5666-6870. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
South Alabama 69, UNT 57
NORTH TEXAS (11-19, 6-13) — T. Mitchell 4-9 2-4 11, Franklin 4-13 0-0 8, A. Williams 6-12 3-4 15, Hardwick 1-5 0-1 2, J. Williams 3-18 3-4 9, Jones 1-6 1-4 3, A. Mitchell 0-0 0-0 0, Overlander 0-0 0-0 0, Stojiljkovic 2-3 1-4 5, Coleman 2-2 0-0 4. Totals 23-68 10-21 57.
SOUTH ALABAMA (16-10, 13-5) — Rubit 3-13 3-3 9, Carter 4-8 2-2 10, Conner 0-2 0-0 0, Allen 4-11 1-2 12, Ammons 8-13 1-1 18, Anderson 3-6 0-0 6, Stevens 0-3 2-2 2, Magee 0-1 0-0 0, Wright 2-3 6-6 10, Juricek 1-2 0-0 2. Totals 25-62 15-16 69.
Halftime — USA 30-24. Three-point goals — UNT 1-11 (T. Mitchell 1-2, Franklin 0-1, A. Williams 0-1, Hardwick 0-1, J. Williams 0-6), USA 4-17 (Conner 0-2, Allen 3-8, Ammons 1-2, Anderson 0-2, Stevens 0-2, Juricek 0-1). Fouled out — none. Rebounds — UNT 39 (T. Mitchell 11), USA 48 (Rubit 15). Assists — UNT 8 (Jones 6), USA 9 (Wright 3). Total fouls — UNT 15, USA 19. A — 4,001.