Time is quickly running out on North Texas — at least when it comes to opportunities to improve before the beginning of Conference USA play.
The official count dwindled to two when it comes to games remaining following the Mean Green’s 81-77 win over Wayland Baptist on Saturday.
UNT (7-5) still has some work to do. The Mean Green is certain of that.
UNT head coach Tony Benford just believes there’s a little less of it remaining following a win over an NAIA team he said is better than it might appear.
“As you get into January, you need to have it together,” Benford said. “Everyone talks about our schedule. If you look around, East Carolina has four games against NAIA and Division II teams. Southern Miss, UTEP are all playing the same type of schedule we are.”
UNT believes that schedule is starting to pay dividends following its win over Wayland Baptist (7-2) that turned out to be a pretty big challenge.
The Mean Green trailed by eight late in the first half and had to hold its collective breath when Plamen Hristov missed a 3-pointer that would have tied the game with 28 seconds left.
UNT held on after Hristov missed and then focused on some of the positives that came out of the win.
Colin Voss, who missed about a month’s worth of preseason practices with a thigh injury, posted his second straight double-double with a career-high 18 points and 10 rebounds. Alzee Williams scored a game-high 24 points, and Chris Jones returned from a bad back to score 13 points and hand out five assists.
Markus Monroe led the Pioneers with 18 points, while Juhreece Thompson — Benford’s nephew — added 17 points and six rebounds.
Needless to say, the biggest positive for UNT was winning a second straight game. The Mean Green has put together back-to-back wins just one other time this year, with those coming during a three-game streak in late November.
“We are trying to gain some momentum heading into league play,” Benford said. “There are a lot of beatable teams in the league. We feel like we can compete with anyone.”
UNT nearly squandered its opportunity to pick up a little of that momentum against Wayland Baptist.
The Pioneers led just once early in the second half, but kept hanging around and still had a chance until UNT made six straight free throws to close out the game after Hristov missed his shot from behind the arc.
Williams made four of those free throws in a solid performance UNT’s players see as an indication that they are finally getting the pieces in place in the way they envisioned at the beginning of the season.
Voss and Williams are at the top of the list of those pieces.
“I go out and play and try to not overthink anything,” Voss said. “Being out a month messed me up a little bit. I am starting to get into a rhythm.”
Williams has always been a secondary option for UNT at the point guard spot behind Jones. Benford believes he is even more effective on the wing with Jones handling the ball.
That pairing worked well against the Pioneers. Williams went 8-for-15 from the field.
“When Chris is in the game, I am going to get easier buckets,” Williams said. “The coaches have told me to have faith in my 15-foot jumper, so I shot it more tonight.”
Jones gave a much-needed spark, scoring five points during a 10-0 run that put the Mean Green up 35-33 after trailing for much of the first half.
Wayland Baptist led 33-25 after Barry Johnson hit a 3.
“That was a big run at the end of the first half,” Voss said. “There was a whole half to go, but it gave us some momentum.”
UNT needed that momentum to pull away late from a Wayland Baptist team that Benford said all along would challenge the Mean Green.
That is exactly what happened.
“I want to give Wayland Baptist credit,” Benford said. “I told our guys that they are a good NAIA team, a good basketball team that has some Division I players.”
The question for UNT is just how good it will be once C-USA play starts.
Benford said he is confident that Voss is developing into an offensive threat in the paint and that Williams will continue to be a weapon on the wing with Jones running the team.
“We are still a work in progress,” Benford said. “Colin is starting to get in a rhythm, and Armani Flannigan is still trying to figure it out a little bit. Vertrail [Vaughns] is starting to realize that he has to get the team involved when he runs the point, and T.J. Taylor is starting to get over his nagging injuries and get into a routine.”
Those are all positive signs for UNT following its win over the Pioneers.
“As we move into conference play, we need to gain some momentum,” Benford said.
UNT did just that by winning its last game before Christmas vacation.
“I don’t want to think about the alternative,” Benford said. “This is a good way to go into the break.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 and via Twitter at @brettvito.
North Texas 81, Wayland Baptist 77
WAYLAND BAPTIST (7-2) — Ovcharenko 3-5 0-0 8, Lawson 1-3 0-2 2, Payton 4-10 0-0 8, Johnson 4-12 3-4 12, Monroe 7-18 3-5 18, Hristov 2-8 2-2 8, Crouch 2-5 0-0 4, Yaboe 0-0 0-0 0, Thompson 4-6 8-12 17. Totals 27-67 16-25 77.
NORTH TEXAS (7-5) — Voss 9-14 0-1 18, Coleman 0-3 0-0 0, Walton 0-4 1-4 1, A. Williams 8-15 8-9 24, J. Williams 2-4 5-6 9, Vaughns 2-5 1-2 5, Aniefiok 0-2 1-2 1, Flannigan 1-2 1-1 3, Jones 5-10 3-4 13, Taylor 3-5 1-2 7. Totals 30-64 21-31 81.
Halftime — UNT 35-33. 3-point goals — Wayland Baptist 7-24 (Ovcharenko 2-4, Johnson 1-6, Monroe 1-4, Hristov 2-8, Thompson 1-2), UNT 0-9 (Walton 0-4, J. Williams 0-1, Vaughns 0-1, Aniefiok 0-1, Jones 0-1, Taylor 0-1). Fouled out — Payton. Rebounds — Wayland Baptist 38 (Thompson 6), UNT 44 (Voss 10). Assists — Wayland Baptist 9 (Payton 4), UNT 11 (Jones 5). Total fouls — Wayland Baptist 26, UNT 21. A — 881.