Chris Jones said he had a secret in the days leading up to North Texas regular-season finale against Arkansas State on Thursday night.
UNT, Jones said, was about to make a run.
The Mean Green has made a habit of doing just that while advancing to the final of the Sun Belt Conference tournament the last three years.
A repeat has seemed like a distant possibility at best most of the way in a season when nothing has gone right for UNT.
The Mean Green needed a reason to have hope late in the year and seemed to get it in the form of a 74-50 win over the Red Wolves on Senior Night at the Super Pit.
ASU had already clinched the Sun Belt Conference West Division, beat the Mean Green earlier in the season and had been one of the league’s hottest teams.
ASU was no match in the rematch against UNT, which is suddenly starting to feel good about the way it is playing after winning three of its last four games.
“We can play with anyone if we play like we did tonight, but we can’t be comfortable with this win,” UNT forward Tony Mitchell said. “We have to keep going.”
UNT (12-19, 7-13 SBC) would like to keep going with the type of performance it put together against ASU (18-10, 12-7).
Alzee Williams led four UNT players who finished in double figures with 19 points. Jordan Williams added 16, and Mitchell posted a double-double with 10 points and 13 rebounds.
Point guard Chris Jones finished with eight points, seven rebounds and four steals in just his second game back after missing 16 games with a broken right foot.
Marcus Hooten led ASU with 18 points and Ed Townsel added 14.
“I wouldn’t want to play us,” UNT head coach Tony Benford said. “We have guys like Tony and Roger who have been in the championship game. We have Chris Jones back and Jordan is playing well. I’m going to bring four suits.”
UNT is hoping that will give Benford just enough formal wear to make it through four games in four days.
UNT will be the No. 9 seed in the conference tournament, a spot it landed with its win over ASU and Troy’s loss to Middle Tennessee on Thursday.
Closing out the regular season on a positive note was nearly as important for UNT as entering the conference tournament on a roll, largely because the Mean Green honored four seniors before the game.
Roger Franklin and Niko Stojiljkovic played their last game for the Mean Green, which also honored Jacob Holmen and Justin Patton, a pair of seniors who are out for the year with injuries.
“Before the game, I cried. When I went out there with my parents, I cried,” Franklin said. “It’s hard to leave home with everything the Mean Green nation did for me.”
What remains to be seen is if UNT’s win over ASU will also be Mitchell’s last game with the Mean Green. The sophomore is a top NBA prospect and has maintained throughout the season that he will sit down and consider his options at the end of the year.
Mitchell stood by that stance after the game.
“I don’t know,’ Mitchell said when asked if he will return for his junior season. “Coach Benford and I have been talking about it. I will make the decision after the season. I want to sit down with my family and my coaches.”
Mitchell showed the defensive prowess that makes him a top NBA prospect against ASU, blocking three shots and altering several others.
Benford has emphasized all season that if UNT is to get back to the Sun Belt title game again this season, it will have to improve defensively. The Mean Green closed in on that goal against ASU.
The Red Wolves went just 1 for 23 from 3-point range, while its 50 points were a season low.
Benford credited that performance partly to Mitchell and Franklin and the presence they provided in the paint.
“That was a good outing for us defensively,” Franklin said. “It’s all about effort. We came in with the mindset that we were going to outplay them. That is exactly what we did.”
That effort was apparent when UNT played one of its best halves of the season defensively while running out to a 34-24 lead at halftime.
ASU missed all 11 of its 3-point attempts and shot just 21.2 percent (7 for 33) from the floor.
Jordan Williams and Stojiljkovic both hit 3-pointers during an early 8-0 run that gave UNT an early 8-2 lead.
The Mean Green pushed its edge to 34-22 late in the first half on a Franklin jumper.
UNT opened the second half on a 10-2 run that pushed its lead to 44-26 and cruised to the finish of a game the Mean Green hopes will spark another run to the finals of the Sun Belt tournament.
“We wanted to go into the tournament on a winning streak,” Franklin said. “Since we are ending on a positive note, we can carry that over into the tournament. We have Chris Jones back and everyone playing well. Everything is falling into place.”
UNT clinched a 10th straight winning season at home with its win over ASU that left the Mean Green with an 8-7 home record. … Sophomore center Keith Coleman did not play due to a sprained ankle but is expected to be ready for the conference tournament.
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org .
NORTH TEXAS 74,ARKANSAS STATE 50
ARKANSAS STATE (18-10, 12-7) — Washington 0-7 4-4 4, Golden 0-9 0-0 0, Finn 2-9 4-4 8, Hooten 8-14 2-3 18, Peterson 0-4 0-0 0, Dickerson 0-4 0-0 0, Downs 2-7 0-0 4, Townsel 4-12 5-6 14, Worsham 1-2 0-0 2. Totals 17-68 15-17 50.
NORTH TEXAS (12-19, 7-13) — T. Mitchell 3-8 3-5 10, Stojiljkovic 1-2 4-6 7, A. Williams 5-9 9-11 19, J. Williams 7-13 0-1 16, Franklin 5-10 2-2 12, Hardwick 0-2 2-2 2, Jones 4-7 0-0 8, A. Mitchell 0-0 0-0 0, Overlander 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 25-52 20-27 74.
Halftime — UNT 34-24. Three-point goals — ASU 1-23 (Golden 0-7, Finn 0-5, Hooten 0-1, Townsel 1-9, Worsham 0-1), UNT 4-13 (T. Mitchell 1-2, Stojiljkovic 1-2, J. Williams 2-6, Jones 0-2, Overlander 0-1). Fouled out — Peterson. Rebounds — ASU 38 (Finn 9), UNT 45 (T. Mitchell 13). Assists — ASU 1 (Golden), UNT 9 (Stojiljkovic 4). Total fouls — ASU 21, UNT 13. Technical fouls — ASU bench. A — 2,851.