Maurice Aniefiok hoisted a deep 3-pointer midway through the second half of North Texas’ Conference USA opener Thursday against Southern Mississippi at the Super Pit.
When it zipped through the net, the Mean Green was in a pretty good spot on a big night in program history, especially when one considers the circumstances.
UNT was down 14 to arguably the best team in C-USA in its league debut before coming all the way back to close within one point with plenty of time to complete the comeback.
Seeing that opportunity slip away in a 74-64 loss that took more than a few odd turns down the stretch was awfully tough to take for the Mean Green, which felt like it let a golden opportunity for a statement win slip away.
“It’s very frustrating,” UNT coach Tony Benford said. “We had them right where we wanted — down a point with eight or nine minutes to go at home. What more could you ask for? We just couldn’t close it out.”
Southern Miss (14-2) used an 11-0 burst, highlighted by an odd officiating sequence, to pull away from UNT (9-6) and snap the Mean Green’s four-game winning streak.
UNT had plenty to look back on and lament following the loss, from a bad start to a poor night at the free throw line.
What was just as hard for UNT to ponder after the loss was the sequence following Aniefiok’s 3 with 9:34 left that pulled the Mean Green to within 49-48.
Chip Armelin hit a jumper to put Southern Miss up by three. That is when things got really interesting.
Southern Miss picked up a steal and drew an intentional foul on UNT guard Vertrail Vaughns, who grabbed Deonte Houston when he had a clear path to the basket.
Neil Watson went to the line, where he hit his first attempt before missing the second.
Officials huddled after the second shot and decided they sent the wrong player to the line, wiped off both attempts and sent Houston to the line, where he hit both attempts.
The free throws ended up sparking what turned into an 11-0 Southern Miss run. UNT never recovered.
“I have never seen that,” Benford said. “They said that is a correctable error. I thought that was a big turning point. I can’t comment too much on it, but I didn’t understand it.”
Daveon Bordingham scored the final five points in the run and finished with 11 points. Michael Craig led Southern Miss with 21 points, while Houston added 10.
Jordan Williams led UNT with 17 points and Aniefiok added 12 for the Mean Green.
“We cut it down to four or five,” Aniefiok said. “I kept telling the guys, ‘This game is there for the taking. We have to take it.’ We didn’t make enough plays down the stretch.”
UNT went scoreless for 3:07 while Southern Miss went on its game-changing run. That drought and a 12-for-22 performance at the free throw line cost UNT, which never led after a poor first half.
Southern Miss got off to a quick start and ran out to a 15-4 lead.
The Mean Green worked its way back into the game after getting into the bonus by the 11:03 mark. UNT scored five points from the free throw line in an 11-5 run that pulled the Mean Green to within 24-18.
Southern Miss answered with a 8-3 run heading into halftime capped by a Chip Armelin layup with four seconds left that gave the Golden Eagles a 39-25 lead.
UNT struggled offensively in the first half, shooting just 34.8 percent (8-for-23) from the field and 50 percent (7-for-14) from the free throw line.
“You can’t get behind a good team like that like we did in the first half, but we came out in the second half and showed a lot of character,” Benford said.
UNT made a few adjustments, including turning up the defensive pressure and attacking Southern Miss’ press with its “domino” set that had Williams flash to the middle of the floor just behind the halfcourt line, take the ball and attack the basket. Williams scored 12 of his points in the second half largely off the set.
While that set changed the complexion of the game, Williams credited UNT’s turnaround more to its overall approach and its defense. Southern Miss missed its first 10 shots of the second half.
“We wanted it more in the second half,” Williams said. “We were aggressive on defense and offense.”
UNT just didn’t have quite enough to get over the hump after Southern Miss responded to the Mean Green’s run and Aniefiok’s 3 with a surge of its own.
“We cut it within one and had a couple of turnovers that hurt us,” Benford said. “That sequence [the changed free throw call] turned the tide a little bit. They made free throws; we didn’t. That’s what happens.”
The 22 turnovers UNT forced tied Southern Miss’ season high set in a loss to Louisville. … Southern Miss had just five steals, well below its season average of 9.3 that ranked 14th nationally. … Southern Miss had beaten UNT eight straight times, dating to 1971. … UNT’s Colin Voss scored four points and grabbed four rebounds. He was averaging 11.3 points and 8.5 rebounds in his last four games.
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 and via Twitter at @brettvito.
Southern Mississippi 74, North Texas 64
SOUTHERN MISS (14-2, 1-0) – Brown 3-5 3-6 9, Eason 1-2 2-3 4, Watson 2-6 0-0 6, Brooks 0-2 6-6 6, Craig 7-12 7-7 21, Bingaya 0-0 0-0 0, Boardingham 2-5 7-7 11, Houston 3-6 3-4 10, Armelin 3-7 0-0 7. Totals 21-45 28-33 74.
NORTH TEXAS (9-6, 0-1) – Voss 2-5 0-1 4, Gaines 0-0 0-0 0, A. Williams 3-4 1-5 7, Jones 1-6 3-4 5, J. Williams 7-14 2-2 17, Vaughns 2-4 2-2 6, Aniefiok 4-8 2-2 12, Walton 0-6 1-3 1, Taylor 3-8 1-2 8, Coleman 2-2 0-1 4. Totals 24-57 12-22 64.
Halftime – Southern Miss 39-25. 3-point goals – Southern Miss 4-12 (Brown 0-1, Watson 2-5, Brooks 0-1, Houston 1-3, Armelin 1-2), UNT 4-15 (J. Williams 1-2, Vaughns 0-1, Aniefiok 2-5, Walton 0-3, Taylor 1-4). Fouled out – Gaines, Coleman. Rebounds – Southern Miss 36 (Eason 9), UNT 30 (Jones 6). Assists – Southern Miss 8 (Watson 3), UNT 8 (Jones, Taylor 3). Total fouls – Southern Miss 23, UNT 25. A – 2,337.