HOT SPRINGS, Ark. — Roger Franklin walked slowly to the end of the bench and quickly sat down, the dejection evident in the look on his face.
Niko Stojiljkovic was next as the final seconds ticked off the clock at the end of North Texas’ opening-round game Friday night against Louisiana-Lafayette in the Sun Belt Conference tournament on the Convocation Center court.
This wasn’t the way it was supposed to end for the Mean Green, not in a 74-55 blowout loss to the Ragin’ Cajuns, not with a 20-loss season.
UNT entered the year with sky-high expectations after advancing to the Sun Belt tournament finals in each of the last three years, not to mention four of the last six. The Mean Green returned its top seven scorers, including a potential NBA lottery pick in Tony Mitchell.
UNT (12-20) never lived up to its billing due to injuries and a lack of continuity in its first season under Tony Benford and was left to ponder what went wrong after the most bitter loss in a season full of them.
“It’s hard,” UNT guard Jordan Williams said. “Everyone thought we were going to make a run. It hurts to know that we fell short.”
The Mean Green had won at least one game in the Sun Belt tournament in every season since 2006 before going one-and-done in its final appearance before leaving for Conference USA.
Nothing went right for UNT in its final year in the Sun Belt, and its final game in the league was no different.
The Mean Green trailed nearly the entire way and saw ULL (13-19) break the game open with an 11-2 run early in the second half.
Bryant Mbamalu hit a 3 at the 15:57 mark to put the Ragin’ Cajuns up 44-31.
UNT never recovered, despite a big night from Williams. The sophomore led UNT with 19 points. Senior Roger Franklin added 13 points in his final appearance with the Mean Green, while Mitchell posted a double-double with 10 points and 12 rebounds in what might have been his final appearance with UNT.
Elfrid Payton led four ULL players in double figures with 20 points. Mbamalu and Alan-Michael Thompson added 16 each, and Shawn Long finished with 12 points and 11 rebounds.
Mitchell said before the tournament that he would consider his options in terms of declaring for the NBA draft following the season and stood by those comments after UNT’s loss to ULL.
“Coach, my family and I will sit down and talk about it,” Mitchell said.
ULL contained Mitchell offensively for a third time this season. He scored just 10 points combined in the teams’ two regular-season games.
ULL head coach Bob Marlin credited assistant coach Shawn Forrest, a former UNT assistant, with helping design a game plan to contain Mitchell.
“Coach Forrest knows me, but it’s up to me to go out there, play and perform,” Mitchell said.
The Mean Green needed more from Mitchell on a night it was shorthanded.
Benford suspended junior guard Alzee Williams for the game for a violation of team rules. Williams was UNT’s fourth-leading scorer with an average of 11.1 points a game.
“Since I have taken the job, we have talked about being accountable on and off the court,” Benford said. “He’s a great kid from a good family, but he made a poor decision, something that we are not going to tolerate in the program.”
UNT had already lost Brandan Walton, Jacob Holmen and Justin Patton to season-ending injuries earlier in the year and didn’t have the firepower to stick with ULL without Alzee Williams as well.
That was especially true in the second half, when ULL outscored UNT 41-26.
“We were stagnant and were not cutting hard,” Jordan Williams said. “We got confused on some plays and were not communicating on the court.”
UNT spent the night playing from behind after Payton scored the first four points in an 8-0 run that put the Ragin’ Cajuns up 12-6.
ULL maintained a lead the rest of the half took a 33-29 lead into intermission.
Jordan Williams scored nearly half of the Mean Green’s points in the opening half, finishing with 14 while hitting all but one of his six shots from the floor.
Williams went just 1 for 7 from the floor in the second half.
“I heard the coach on the sideline telling them to deny me the ball,” Williams said. “I still had some good shots. I just didn’t knock them down.”
Neither did anyone else for UNT when the Ragin’ Cajuns pulled away and left the Mean Green pondering what went wrong in a season that started with such promise.
“It’s extremely disappointing,” Benford said. “If we had the team that we had at the beginning of the season, things would have been different. We lost our best shooter and perimeter defender [Walton] the first game of the season. We had so many season-ending injuries that made it tough to get into a flow.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Louisiana-Lafayette 74, North Texas 55
NORTH TEXAS (12-20) — Hardwick 1-4 0-0 2, Jones 1-9 2-5 4, T. Mitchell 3-7 3-6 10, Williams 6-13 4-8 19, Franklin 6-10 1-1 13, A. Mitchell 0-0 0-0 0, Overlander 1-2 0-0 3, Stojiljkovic 1-6 2-4 4, Coleman 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 19-51 12-24 55.
LOUSIANA-LAFAYETTE (13-19) — Mbamalu 7-11 0-1 16, Payton 7-17 5-6 20, Thompson 5-13 4-4 16, Long 6-17 0-0 12, Moore 1-3 0-0 2, Barnett 1-1 0-0 2, Soto 1-3 0-0 3, Wronkoski 1-1 0-0 3, Shepherd 0-1 0-0 0, Williams 0-1 0-0 0, LeBlanc 0-0 0-0 0, Lazare 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 29-68 9-11 74.
Halftime — ULL 33-29. 3-point goals — UNT 5-14 (T. Mitchell 1-3, Williams 3-6, Overlander 1-2, Stojiljkovic 0-3), ULL 7-23 (Mbamalu 2-4, Payton 1-3, Thompson 2-8, Long 0-3, Soto 1-2, Wronkoski 1-1, Shepherd 0-1, Williams 0-1). Fouled out — Jones. Rebounds — UNT 39 (Mitchell 12), ULL 41 (Long 11). Assists — UNT 9 (Hardwick 5), ULL 14 (Payton 7). Total fouls — UNT 13, ULL 18. Technical fouls — UNT: Hardwick, Williams.