North Texas was looking for a jolt of confidence a few days ago while riding a roller coaster that had it playing well at times and struggling at others.
The Mean Green got that boost on New Year’s Eve, pounding Texas A&M in an outing UNT believes was just what it needed to really get on a roll in its second season under Tony Benford.
UNT played arguably its best game in two seasons while cruising past the Aggies 61-41.
The Mean Green went down in A&M history, holding the Aggies to their lowest point total at Reed Arena, surpassing the previous low A&M set in a 64-43 loss to Iowa State in the 1998-99 season.
UNT will look to build on that performance today in a 2 p.m. game against California-Riverside (5-8), the first half of a Super Pit doubleheader that will conclude when the UNT women take on Cameron at 5 p.m.
“We needed that big-time,” UNT guard Jordan Williams said of the Mean Green’s win over A&M. “We started off pretty bad. That should be a big confidence booster.”
UNT (8-5) has won three straight and six of its last eight, a run that couldn’t have come at a better time for the Mean Green. UNT will open its first season in Conference USA with a home game against Southern Mississippi on Thursday.
Benford and his players are feeling a lot better about the way they are playing heading into conference play for a number of reasons. The Mean Green’s improvement defensively and the health of its players are at the top of the list.
UNT has become more comfortable with a zone defense that has become a key part of its arsenal and has all of its players at its disposal for the first time all season.
“Our defense was unbelievable,” Benford said of UNT’s performance against A&M. “We did a good job of mixing up our zone and our man and communicated on the defensive end.”
Alzee Williams capitalized on the numerous transition opportunities UNT had because of the solid defense and finished with 14 points on 5-of-6 shooting. The senior guard leads UNT with an average of 14.8 points per game.
UNT rolled at A&M despite playing without junior center Keith Coleman, who will be back today after a one-game suspension for a violation of team rules.
“It was a great team effort that will give us a confidence boost heading into our next game and conference play,” Alzee Williams said. “We played team basketball and shared the ball. We caught some people’s attention beating an SEC team on the road by 20.”
UNT hopes to carry the momentum from that win through its game against UC Riverside and into its first season in C-USA.
Senior forward Chris Patton leads the Highlanders with an average of 12.8 points per game, while sophomore forward Taylor Johns is adding 12.7 points an outing.
“There is no doubt that was a big confidence builder,” Benford said of UNT’s win over A&M. “It was a great team win, one we have to build on.”
The UNT women also are closing in on their first C-USA game and will play their last nonconference contest today. The Mean Green (5-7) has lost its last two games, both in heartbreaking fashion.
UNT fell in overtime to rival SMU and then came back from a 19-point deficit before falling 85-79 to Missouri State on Sunday.
“For the most part I like how we are playing, but I don’t like how we are finishing these games and I don’t like that we are playing well in spurts,” UNT women’s coach Mike Petersen said. “When we are playing the right way — the way we are capable of playing — and our focus is right, we are really good.”
UNT will try to play at that level on a consistent basis against Cameron (8-2) in a game that will count as an exhibition for the Aggies, a member of the Division II Lone Star Conference.
Briesha Wynn leads UNT with an average of 10.1 points per game and could carry a heavy load offensively today, when the Mean Green will be short-handed.
Sophmore forward Acheil Tac, who is averaging 9.5 points per game, is out with a knee contusion, while sophomore forward Alexis Hyer is questionable after being hit in the head in practice. Hyder is averaging 9.1 points.
Jazzmine Robinson is averaging 11.3 points a game to lead Cameron, the last team UNT will face before embarking on a tough road trip to Middle Tennessee and Charlotte to start C-USA play next week.
“It’s very important,” guard Desiree Nelson said of UNT’s game against Cameron. “We want to go in confident and ready for conference.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 and via Twitter at @brettvito.