North Texas is suddenly looking at a long road to travel to become a contender in its first season in Conference USA, a predicament the Mean Green didn’t see coming just a few days ago.
UNT entered its first weekend in its inaugural C-USA season riding a four-game winning streak and had the luxury of playing its first two league games at the Super Pit.
The last of those two games slipped away on Saturday, when Tulane blew open a close game in the second half and pulled away for a 73-62 win.
That setback, combined with a loss to Southern Miss on Thursday, has UNT (9-7) sitting at 0-2 in league play with a two-game road trip to Marshall and Charlotte coming up this week.
“Any time you don’t win your home games, you are going to dig a hole,” UNT coach Tony Benford said. “If your goal is to win the conference title, you have to win your games at home. That is the bottom line. We played arguably the No. 1 team on Thursday and gave great effort and didn’t finish it. Then we faced a team in Tulane that is in transition, and they came in here and gave better effort than us. That’s inexcusable. We all have to look in the mirror and figure out what we are doing.”
Perhaps the most baffling aspect of the loss for UNT was the way Tulane (9-8, 1-1) was able to shut down nearly every player in the Mean Green’s starting lineup. Jordan Williams had a solid game with 14 points and four rebounds, but the rest of the Mean Green’s starting five struggled.
Chris Jones scored five points but committed three turnovers and didn’t have an assist in 15 minutes.
Alzee Williams — UNT’s leading scorer at 13.9 points a game — didn’t score. Keith Coleman and Maurice Aniefiok also didn’t score. The trio combined to miss all 14 of its shots in 59 minutes on the floor.
UNT turned to T.J. Taylor and Vertrail Vaughns, who scored 19 and 10 points off the bench, respectively.
Taylor is still working his way back into shape after suffering a preseason knee injury that kept him out of the first two games of the year.
“I felt good out there, am getting healthy and am getting my conditioning back,” Taylor said. “I’m in catch-up mode right now, but I will be all right. I will be able to play more.”
Jonathan Stark scored 20 points and Louis Dabney added 19 for Tulane, which used a 9-0 run at the beginning of the second half to take control.
Stark hit a jumper and a 3 during the run, which UNT helped fuel by turning the ball over three times.
Jordan Williams slammed the ball on the floor after Stark hit his 3 and was called for a technical foul that resulted in a pair of free throws Jay Hook buried to cap the run.
“I put it on myself for getting that tech,” Williams said. “I apologized to the team. I shouldn’t have done that.”
UNT pulled back to within four three times, but couldn’t get any closer the rest of the way or recapture the momentum it had at halftime.
UNT trailed by as many as 10 points early before closing the first half on a 13-3 run.
The Mean Green had the ball with 5.5 seconds left in the half and worked the ball to Jordan Williams, who hit a 3 from the wing at the buzzer to tie the game.
Tulane scored just three points after UNT took a timeout at the 5:15 mark of the first half to try to short-circuit a Green Wave run. Tulane ran off an 8-0 burst and then went up 24-14 when Trey Drye hit a 3 from the wing.
“It was huge to make a play and get back into the game,” Benford said of Williams’ 3.
That momentum quickly vanished, which was a surprise for UNT.
“I thought that we were ready [for the second half],” Jordan Williams said. “Coach fired us up. One of our goals was to protect the house, but we didn’t play with energy.”
Benford was looking for consistent effort and passion and thought that UNT came up short.
“We played with passion in spurts,” Benford said.
UNT will have to find that passion on a consistent basis after putting itself in a tough spot to start league play. The Mean Green will face Marshall on Thursday before taking on Charlotte on Saturday.
Marshall was 6-10 heading into a game late Saturday night at UTEP but is 6-2 at home. Charlotte is 10-5 after falling to UT-San Antonio on Saturday.
“Conference play is very tough,” Jordan Williams said. “You have to play with energy because everyone wants to get to the NCAA tournament. We are going to get better and get it done.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 and via Twitter at @brettvito.
Tulane 73, North Texas 62
TULANE (9-8, 1-1) — Thomas 2-4 3-3 7, Drye 1-3 3-4 6, Dabney 8-14 3-4 19, Stark 6-14 5-7 20, Hook 1-9 8-10 10, Reynolds 4-8 0-0 9, Smith 0-0 0-0 0, Henson 0-3 0-0 0, Brutha 1-2 0-0 2. Totals 23-57 22-28 73.
NORTH TEXAS (9-7, 0-2) — Aniefiok 0-5 0-0 0, Coleman 0-2 0-2 0, A. Williams 0-7 0-0 0, Jones 2-4 1-2 5, J. Williams 5-10 2-2 14, Vaughns 3-7 4-5 10, Walton 1-4 0-0 3, Flannigan 1-1 0-0 2, Taylor 5-10 9-12 19, Gaines 0-0 0-0 0, Voss 4-6 1-2 9. Totals 21-56 17-25 62.
Halftime — tied, 27-27. 3-point goals — 5-18 (Drye 1-1, Dabney 0-2, Stark 3-4, Hook 0-5, Reynolds 1-5, Henson 0-1), UNT 3-12 (Aniefiok 0-3, J. Williams 2-5, Walton 1-3, Taylor 0-1). Fouled out — none. Rebounds — Tulane 41 (Dabney 9), UNT 37 (Voss 7). Assists — Tulane 7 (Dabney 3), UNT 5 (Taylor 4). Total fouls — Tulane 21, UNT 22. Technical fouls — J. Williams. A — 1,969.