North Texas guard Chris Jones knows what people probably thought when they saw the path the Mean Green must travel if it wants to stay around long in the Sun Belt Conference tournament this week.
UNT drew Louisiana-Lafayette, a team it lost to twice, once by 31 points, in the first round at 6:30 p.m. on Friday in Hot Springs, Ark. If the ninth-seeded Mean Green can get past the eight-seeded Ragin’ Cajuns, the Sun Belt’s top team will be waiting in round two in Middle Tennessee.
The Blue Raiders (27-4, 19-1) have lost only one Sun Belt game all season and are the top seed.
“We have the hard road and we know that,” UNT head coach Tony Benford said. “We are looking forward to the challenge.”
It’s a challenge Jones believes UNT is ready to meet.
“Most people are counting us out, but we believe in ourselves,” Jones said. “We want to send Roger [Franklin], Justin Patton and the rest of our seniors out on a good note.
“We are capable of making a run. We got all of our injuries out of the way. We are ready.”
UNT beat Troy and Florida Atlantic in back-to-back games earlier this month, marking the first time the Mean Green had won consecutive games since December.
That milestone — and a 74-50 thrashing of Arkansas State in its regular-season finale — has UNT (12-19) feeling good about its chances of turning the corner in the conference tournament, beginning with its game against ULL (12-19).
UNT will have to win four games in four days to win the tournament title.
The Mean Green hasn’t won more than three games in a row all season, and that three-game run came back in November, before UNT suffered a series of injuries.
UNT won’t have Jacob Holmen, Justin Patton or Brandan Walton — who was lost with a broken foot after only one game — available for the conference tournament.
The Mean Green will have Jones, though, which UNT is hoping will make a big difference. Jones missed 16 games with a broken foot before returning for the final two games of the regular season.
UNT’s top playmaker missed the Mean Green’s second game against ULL, when the Ragin’ Cajuns rolled to a 105-74 win.
“That game got away from us,” Benford said. “It was close and then Tony [Mitchell] got into foul trouble. He has not played well against them. We will see. Tony is looking forward to the game. We have to get him going and keep him out of foul trouble.”
Mitchell played only 25 minutes in each of the teams’ previous two meetings and scored a total of 10 points. The sophomore is averaging 13.1 points and 8.4 rebounds a game and could be the key against the Ragin’ Cajuns for UNT.
ULL has played a sagging defense that collapses around Mitchell every time he touches the ball.
“They do a good job of sagging in there, but with Chris back, we will be able to keep them from doing that,” Benford said.
UNT’s other big concern could be ULL point guard Elfrid Payton, who had 14 points and nine assists in the teams’ first meeting before coming back to score 24 points to go along with nine assists in the rematch.
UNT is hoping Jones’ return will help turn the tide.
“I am ready to face Payton,” Jones said. “He is really competitive. I like playing against players like that. It will be a good matchup. I hope it makes a difference that I am back.”
Youth not a concern
Loryn Goodwin has no idea what is in store for UNT when it opens the Sun Belt Conference tournament at 2:30 p.m. Friday against Louisiana-Lafayette.
The freshman guard is in her first go-around with the Mean Green and isn’t alone. Freshman forward Alexis Hyder and sophomore guard BreAnna Dawkins, who is in her first season playing for UNT, will also be new to the conference tournament.
That isn’t much of a concern for Goodwin, or UNT head coach Mike Petersen.
“Experience shouldn’t matter,” Goodwin said. “In the tournament everyone is tired and everyone knows everyone else’s plays. It’s about heart and who wants to win it the most.”
A good matchup in the first round doesn’t hurt either. UNT is in solid position in that regard. The sixth-seeded Mean Green (11-18, 10-10) beat the 11th-seeded Ragin’ Cajuns (9-20, 3-17) handily twice this season.
UNT won 71-59 at home and came back to beat ULL 64-46 in Lafayette, La.
“It can go one of two ways,” Petersen said of having a young team. “Sometimes you are better off with a bunch of young players who don’t know any better. Sometimes you take a whole bunch of seniors, it’s their last ride and they get a little tense. The players that we have who are younger — Loryn, Alexis and Bre — have not been there, but they have played well on the road. It’s not like they have only played well at home. I don’t think it will bother them.”
UNT went 5-5 on the road in conference play.
One of UNT’s losses on the road in Sun Belt games came near the end of the season at Troy, an 86-69 setback that was part of a three-game losing streak.
UNT pulled out of that slide with a key 53-51 win over Arkansas State in its regular-season finale, a victory that couldn’t have come at a better time.
“We feel good about having beaten a very good team in a close game,” Petersen said. “We had to make a lot of plays down the stretch to win that game. It’s a positive for us going forward.”
What could also be an advantage for UNT are its frontline players who dominated the meetings between the teams in the regular season.
Hyder averaged 15 points and 10 rebounds a game against ULL, while Sara Stanley added 7.0 points and 5.5 rebounds.
Petersen said that he expects the presence the pair provide inside to make a difference again in the team’ third meeting, when UNT will lean on some young players.
“I’m excited, not nervous,” Goodwin said. “We have beaten ULL both times. Not to count anyone out, but we are excited to play a team we beat twice. I like our chances.”
Rolling into Sun Belt play
UNT will enter Sun Belt Conference play on a roll after winning four of its five games over the weekend in the Century Link Classic.
The Mean Green beat both Texas State and Texas A&M-Corpus Christi twice. UNT’s only loss of the tournament came against Purdue, which knocked off the Mean Green 6-2.
UNT improved to 11-10 on the season heading into its Sun Belt Conference opener Saturday at home against Florida International.
UNT will play three games against FIU over the weekend, beginning with a 1 p.m. doubleheader on Saturday. The final game of the series will be played at noon Sunday.
UNT played a pair of tournaments at Texas State in preparation for conference play. UNT went 3-2 with both of its losses coming against Baylor in the Texas Shootout from Feb. 21-24.
“The last two weekends have put us in good position,” UNT head coach T.J. Hubbard said. “Our only losses are two times to Baylor and once against Purdue.”
Ashley Kirk and Jordan Terry each received Sun Belt Player of the Week honors for their performance over the weekend.
Kirk went 2-0 with a 0.64 ERA and tied her own school record with 14 strikeouts in a win over A&M-Corpus Christi, while Terry hit .438 with two home runs and eight RBIs.
UNT ends two-match skid
UNT snapped a rare two-match losing streak Saturday, when Kseniya Bardabush came through in a key spot for the Mean Green in a 4-3 win over Miami (Ohio).
Bardabush was down 5-2 and faced match point at 5-4 in the final set before coming back to beat Christiana Raymond 6-4, 2-6, 7-6 at No. 1 singles and give UNT the win, not to mention some much-needed momentum.
UNT was swept by Georgia Tech on Friday and lost a key match to rival TCU 4-2 at home Wednesday. The Mean Green (7-3) fell from No. 47 to No. 54 in this week’s Collegiate Tennis Association rankings.
UNT head coach Sujay Lama was particularly pleased with the way his team handled those losses and snapped its losing streak against Miami.
“What we have right now is a team that is physically and mentally very strong,” Lama said. “That says a lot about this team and its maturity. We are a blue-collar team that does not go away. We know how to fight.”
Lama credited Bardabush for coming through in a key spot for UNT, which has made a habit of winning close matches this year. UNT is 4-0 in matches that have finished with a 4-3 score.
“We played a heck of a match that went down to the wire,” Lama said of the Miami match. “It was a gutsy effort by Kseniya. At some point in the season you have to win the matches you are supposed to win and win them in an odd way.”
UNT will look to build on that win at home when it takes on No. 22 Tulsa at 2 p.m. Saturday and Wichita State at 11 a.m. Sunday. UNT lost to the Shockers last season in Wichita.
“This is a great opportunity,” Lama said of the Tulsa match. “They have done well in tennis and have consistently been in the top 25. We have been looking forward to it.”
Swimming and diving
Coach earns SBC honor
UNT head coach Joe Dykstra was named the Sun Belt Conference’s Co-Coach of the Year last week for leading the Mean Green to a second-place finish in the conference meet.
Western Kentucky edged UNT 853-828 for its ninth conference title in school history.
UNT’s second-place finish was the best in program history.
Sophomore Kimmy Phillips of Argyle won the 1,650 in a time of 16:13.58, an NCAA B qualifying mark.
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org .