There isn’t a team in Conference USA on a roll quite like the one North Texas is in the midst of heading into the weekend.
UNT (7-3) has won five straight, hasn’t lost since a bitter setback Oct. 5 at Tulane and is squarely in the hunt for the C-USA West Division title at 5-1 in league play.
Texas-San Antonio might not be on a run as significant as the one the Mean Green is on — but it’s close.
The Roadrunners (5-5) have won three straight — all in impressive fashion, over UAB, Tulsa and Tulane.
The scenario makes Saturday’s showdown between UNT and UTSA easily the unofficial C-USA game of the week.
“We are trying to stay in the Conference USA race,” UNT coach Dan McCarney said. “We know we are going to a bowl game, but we are trying to go for bigger and better things that are out there, knowing that we have a well-coached and successful team that is on a roll that is coming in here on Saturday.”
It’s a showdown few saw coming.
UNT was picked to finish fifth in the West Division and wasn’t expected to beat many teams this season other than UTSA, which was picked to finish last.
The two newcomers have more than exceeded expectations.
UNT’s coaches and players feel secure in the fact that they will play in their first bowl game since the 2004 New Orleans Bowl after knocking off UTEP two weeks ago.
UTSA has bowl hopes of its own if it can win six games, all of the bowl games don’t fill their slots and one decides to invite the Roadrunners. That scenario seems unlikely but is possible. UTSA will begin the 2014 season fully bowl-eligible after completing the transitional phase to become a Football Bowl Subdivision program.
Even though it hasn’t completed that transition, McCarney and his players expect UTSA to be highly motivated Saturday.
UTSA coach Larry Coker, whom McCarney credited with doing a terrific job of building up the Roadrunners program, expects nothing less.
“It is a game changer from where our program is coming from to have an opportunity to be playing for something,” Coker said of the division title. “Our kids would play hard either way. I do let them know that this is the same championship that they are playing for at North Texas. The main thing we have to do is win and we have a shot.”
No one has a better shot than UNT of winning the West heading into the weekend after its five-game run. For the Mean Green, the equation is simple: Win out and UNT can do no worse than finish in a tie with Rice, a team it has beaten.
The key now is capitalizing on the opportunity. UNT is well aware that taking another step toward that goal will be a challenge when it hosts UTSA, a team that is on a run of its own.
“UTSA is a solid team that will be a challenge,” UNT quarterback Derek Thompson said. “We will have to be on our ‘A’ game to get a victory.”
UNT aims to build momentum heading home
Mike Petersen wanted to stay a little closer to home in his second season at UNT, at least when it came to the Mean Green’s schedule.
UNT will have that opportunity this week when the Mean Green hosts the Hospitality Hill Challenge and would like nothing more than to carry some momentum into the event.
The chance will come today when the Mean Green (1-1) travels to Houston. The 7 p.m. game will be UNT’s final tuneup before coming home to host Abilene Christian and Bethune-Cookman in its tournament.
“We want to play in-state schools, and playing Houston makes sense,” Petersen said. “It’s another home-and-home. They will be back next year and they are a good team. They are a former Conference USA team that is now in the American [Athletic Conference]. We want to play those games because they will prepare us for Conference USA.”
UNT had eight days to prepare for Houston following a 67-48 loss at home to No. 13 Texas A&M last week.
Junior forward Briesha Wynn scored 13 points but was the only member of the Mean Green to reach double figures on a night UNT struggled offensively.
Tonight’s game will offer UNT a chance to get back on track. The Cougars are 0-3 but did stick closer to A&M than the Mean Green did in a 63-51 loss.
“Houston is very athletic, good in transition and are good defensively,” Petersen said. “They have a lot of players who can score.”
Sophomore guard Jessieka Palmer leads Houston with an average of 12.3 points per game. Wynn and sophomore forward Acheil Tac each are averaging 10.5 points for UNT.
“We had a long stretch off but have been working hard,” UNT senior guard Laura McCoy said. “The girls are anxious for another game. The break was good. We had some really good practices and got our legs back after back-to-back games.”
Petersen said UNT will look to carry improvement it made over the last few days into its game against Houston.
“We want to build up some confidence going into our own tournament,” McCoy said. “They are right down the road. Hopefully they will have a lot of fans and we will have a lot of fans. It will be good for us.”
Senior off to great start
Alzee Williams will enter the Mean Green’s road trip to Portland, Ore., this week on a tear.
The senior guard became the first player since Chris Smith in 1996-97 to open the season with consecutive 20-point games and followed that run with a 16-point outing in a win over Nicholls State on Thursday.
“I don’t think Alzee could play any better,” UNT coach Tony Benford said. “He has been good on and off the court. He has worked hard and is getting better and better every day. He is our best defender and penetrater and is attempting a lot of free throws.”
Williams seemingly has hit everything he has put up this season, hitting 55.9 percent of his shots from the floor, both of his 3-point attempts and 22 of his 28 free throw attempts.
Williams will look to build on that performance in the Mean Green’s final three games in the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic in Portland. UNT will face Columbia, Idaho and Portland on consecutive days beginning Thursday. The Mean Green lost to Oklahoma in its first game in the event Nov. 11.
Dillard named All-C-USA
Sophomore outside hitter Carnae Dillard was named to the All-Conference USA first team Tuesday, when the Mean Green had three players honored by the league.
Senior middle blocker Karissa Flack was a second-team pick, while setter Amy Henard was named to the all-freshman team.
Dillard led the Mean Green with 441 kills and ranked second on the team with 343 digs, while Flack ranked second on the team with 232 kills. Flack led UNT with 79 assisted blocks.
UNT will face Florida Atlantic in a first-round game of the C-USA tournament Thursday in Murfreesboro, Tenn.
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 or via Twitter at @brettvito.