North Texas will carry a load of momentum into its first game in Conference USA.
The Mean Green just had to sweat it out a little against California-Riverside late in its final tuneup Saturday at the Super Pit.
UNT blew a 16-point cushion in the second half before Maurice Aniefiok scored the Mean Green’s last three points in a 76-72 win.
In a lot of ways, the way the game unfolded was a lot like UNT’s nonconference season. It wasn’t always pretty, but the Mean Green ended up in a place it could feel pretty good about.
UNT (9-5) recovered from a 34-point drubbing by Stephen F. Austin at home three weeks ago to win its last four games in nonconference play, including a landmark victory at Texas A&M this week.
“Our schedule has prepared us,” UNT coach Tony Benford said. “We are about a game from where I thought we would be. If you look at our last four games, we have gotten better. I always tell our guys it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish.”
That doesn’t mean UNT wouldn’t mind starting well in C-USA play Thursday when it hosts Southern Mississippi. The game will be the Mean Green’s first in C-USA after joining the league over the summer.
“We’re ready,” UNT guard Brandan Walton said. “We’re very deep and play 11 guys. It’s hard to run with a team like that.”
That depth was apparent in UNT’s win over UC Riverside (5-9). Walton scored 14 points and Aniefiok 13 to lead the Mean Green, which had 10 players score.
Steven Thornton and Sam Finley each scored 18 points to lead UC Riverside, which was in the game to the closing buzzer.
Steven Jones hit a layup with 12 seconds left to pull the Highlanders to within 73-72 with 12 seconds left. UC Riverside fouled Aniefiok, who made the first of two free throws with six seconds left.
UNT caught a break when the ball went out of bounds off a Highlander. The Mean Green set up an inbounds play and executed it to perfection when Aniefiok cut to the basket and laid the ball in off an assist from Chris Jones.
“It is something we have always done,” Aniefiok said of the play. “They were overplaying up. I was able to get the bucket to seal it.”
UNT didn’t appear as if it would need a key play or two late most of the day while building a big lead.
Walton and T.J. Taylor hit back-to-back 3s in the middle of a 16-4 run that put the Mean Green up 53-37.
“In the second half we had stretches where we played well,” Benford said. “We rebounded the ball and executed well.”
UNT just didn’t maintain that consistency long enough to put the Highlanders away. UC Riverside heated up from 3-point range and hit three 3s during a 13-2 run to tie the game at 58.
UNT answered with a 5-0 run and led the rest of the way. The Highlanders just made sure that the Mean Green never had a comfortable edge.
“We didn’t do a good job of keeping them in front of us and getting to 3-point shooters,” Benford said. “They made one 3-point shot in the first half. In the second half they made six. We have to do a better job of closing games, getting stops and finishing possessions with rebounds and make free throws.”
UNT didn’t appear as if it would have to work on those issues after opening up a little breathing room in what was a close game late in the first half. Keith Coleman hit a layup and Walton hit a 3 from the wing off an assist from Vertrail Vaughns to put the Mean Green up 29-21.
UNT led 33-27 at halftime largely due to some hot shooting from behind the arc. Walton went 2-for-3 from deep for UNT, which hit four of its eight attempts.
The Mean Green built on the momentum it established early in the second half but found itself in a tight game late.
“We really need to work on finishing as a team,” Aniefiok said. “Basketball is a game of runs. It comes down to who is going to make the plays at the end of the game.”
UNT made those plays late and now will turn its attention to C-USA play.
Benford said that UNT has work to do but he likes where his team is at heading into league play. The Mean Green has all of its players healthy and ready for conference play. Four straight wins gives UNT momentum as well.
“We are going to play the best team in our league on Thursday and have to be ready to battle for 40 minutes,” Benford said of Southern Miss. “We played 20 solid minutes of basketball and were fortunate to win the game, but I would rather learn winning than losing any day.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 and via Twitter at @bretvito.
North Texas 76, California-Riverside 72
UC RIVERSIDE (5-9) — Devenny 1-4 1-1 3, Thornton 7-12 3-4 18, Johns 4-8 0-1 8, Gruninger 2-7 2-3 8, Finley 6-14 4-6 18, Jones 2-4 0-0 5, Owens 0-0 0-0 0, Harriel 2-7 5-9 9, Gruber 0-0 0-0 0, Quick 1-3 0-0 3. Totals 25-59 15-24 72.
NORTH TEXAS (9-5) — Flannigan 1-2 1-2 3, Voss 3-10 2-2 8, A. Williams 1-3 7-8 9, Jones 2-4 5-6 9, J. Williams 1-7 3-5 5, Vaughns 2-4 1-4 5, Aniefiok 5-10 2-4 13, Walton 5-8 0-0 14, Taylor 3-5 0-0 8, Gaines 0-0 0-0 0, Coleman 1-1 0-0 2. Totals 24-54 21-31 76.
Halftime — UNT, 33-27. 3-point goals – RS 7-18 (Thornton 1-3, Gruninger 2-4, Finley 2-5, Jones 1-1, Harriel 0-2, Quick 1-3) UNT 7-16 (J. Williams 0-3, Aniefiok 1-4, Walton 4-6, Taylor 2-3). Fouled out – Devenny. Rebounds – RS 37 (Johns 15), UNT 41 (Voss 10). Assists – RS 9 (Johns, Gruninger, Jones, Quick 2). UNT 13 (Jones 4). Total fouls – RS 23, UNT 21. A – 1,872.