A new era in program history will begin with a familiar challenge for the North Texas women’s basketball team.
The Mean Green will play its first Conference USA game tonight at Middle Tennessee, one of its longtime rivals during 13 seasons in the Sun Belt.
“It’s really exciting,” UNT senior guard Laura McCoy said. “We will get to play some bigger teams and teams that are a little closer to us, so our fans can come.”
UNT was the lone Texas school in the Sun Belt and expects a boost from moving to C-USA, a league that includes Rice, UTEP and Texas-San Antonio.
MTSU is one of three members of the Sun Belt that made the move to C-USA with UNT.
The new mix will make the league a challenging one.
“This will be a very good league,” UNT coach Mike Petersen said. “There are a lot of good teams. In some leagues the bottom gets really soft. This league doesn’t have that. Every team requires your attention or they will beat you.”
UNT believes it is equipped to contend for the conference title in its first season due to its overall depth and talent. Nine players have started at least one game for UNT, and four are averaging at least nine points an outing. Junior forward Briesha Wynn leads UNT with 10.0 points per game.
“I like us,” Petersen said. “We have a chance to be competitive with everyone in the conference. It comes down to what we have dealt with this year: Can we win close games?”
UNT (6-7) will find out pretty quickly if it can compete with the best teams in C-USA.
MTSU (11-3) has made five straight trips to the NCAA tournament, was picked in the preseason coaches poll to win the C-USA title and has won 10 straight games.
The Lady Raiders have lost just one game to an unraked team this season and are 68-3 at the Murphy Center in nine seasons under Rick Insell.
UNT hasn’t beaten MTSU since 2006 and has lost 10 straight to the Lady Raiders.
“This is the team I want to beat most of anyone in the conference,” McCoy said. “We played them in the Sun Belt, haven’t beaten them yet and they are a good team. It would be a good accomplishment for our program. They have beaten some good teams and have a good record.”
UNT nearly upset MTSU in Murfreesboro, Tenn., last year. The Mean Green led in the closing seconds before Icelyn Elie hit a corner 3 to lift MTSU to a 66-64 win.
That performance gives UNT a boost of confidence that it can compete against MTSU on its home court.
“It’s time for us to step it up and make a statement from the start,” UNT forward Alexis Hyder said of the conference opener. “We have all the pieces. We just need to put it together.
“We are capable of beating them.”
The key for UNT could be slowing MTSU star forward Ebony Rowe. The senior is averaging 23.1 points and 11.6 rebounds per game.
“I am excited to play against her,” Hyder said. “She has been spoken of as the best player in the league. Our plan will be successful or at least make it difficult for her. She is the key, the lock, the everything for them.”
If UNT can contain Rowe, it will have a chance to start its first conference season in C-USA on a high note.
Petersen said before the season that UNT’s goal is to win the conference, and he hasn’t backed off that stance.
“We have just as good a chance to win as anyone,” Petersen said. “Whether or not we play well enough to take advantage of those chances is a whole other topic.”
UNT to get key players back
UNT will have three of its key players back this week for its first road trip in C-USA play.
Hyder, McCoy and sophomore forward Acheil Tac are all expected to play at some point during a trip that will take UNT to Charlotte on Saturday following its game at MTSU.
All three missed UNT’s win over Cameron on Saturday.
Hyder sat out after being hit in the head in practice, while McCoy is getting over a case of the flu. Both are expected to play today.
Tac is recovering from a knee injury. Petersen said he expects the former Sachse standout to play at some point during the trip. How much and when will depend on her health.
Tac is averaging 9.5 points per game, while Hyder is averaging 9.1 points. McCoy is averaging 4.3 points and could be a valuable asset against MTSU, which is known for its full-court press. McCoy is one of UNT’s primary ball-handlers and has faced MTSU’s press in the past.
The Lady Raiders are forcing 19.3 turnovers per game.
UNT receives votes in poll
UNT received two votes in the USA Today coaches poll released following Florida State’s win over Auburn in the national title game Monday night.
There are 62 head coaches at Football Bowl Subdivision schools that vote in the poll, including UNT coach Dan McCarney.
UNT finished 9-4 after hammering UNLV 36-14 in the Heart of Dallas Bowl. The win was UNT’s first in a bowl game since 2002 and just the third in school history.
UNT rolling at home entering C-USA play
UNT is on a roll at home heading into its first C-USA game Thursday against Southern Mississippi.
The Mean Green has won four straight, including a landmark win at Texas A&M, and is 7-1 at home. UNT’s only home loss came against Stephen F. Austin.
Keeping those runs going against the Golden Eagles could be a challenge for UNT. The Mean Green’s seven home wins have come against two NAIA schools, four members of the Southland Conference and California-Riverside.
Of the five Division I schools UNT has played at home, only Incarnate Word has a winning record.
Southern Miss is 13-2, with its only losses coming against No. 9 Louisville and Western Kentucky.
UNT might need to replicate its performance against A&M to compete with Southern Miss.
The Mean Green held the Aggies to 30 percent shooting from the field on a night two of its top guards shot the ball particularly well. Maurice Aniefiok hit six of his nine shots and scored 16 points, while Alzee Williams hit all but one of his six attempts and finished with 14 points.
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 and via Twitter at @brettvito.