The table seemed set for North Texas to grab what would have been a pretty important victory for myriad reasons Saturday night with old Sun Belt Conference rival Middle Tennessee in town.
UNT had a chance to crawl back to the .500 mark in Conference USA play in its first season in the league with a win over the Blue Raiders, not to mention snap a five-game losing streak against its old rival in front of a huge crowd that turned out on a night the school honored its football team for beating UNLV in the Heart of Dallas Bowl.
To say what happened in a 70-63 loss to the Blue Raiders at the Super Pit was disappointing might be a bit of an understatement.
UNT (11-9, 2-4 C-USA) jumped all over MTSU early and had a 13-point lead in the first half before quickly falling apart.
MTSU (13-7, 3-2) went on a huge 21-3 run spanning halftime and closed out the Mean Green late.
“They have owned the series,” UNT coach Tony Benford said. “I felt going into the game that it would be a great opportunity to get a win in front of a great crowd with the football team being honored. I would like to thank the fans for coming out. I’m disappointed that we let them down.”
UNT fans had a chance to have their picture taken with the bowl trophy before the game and throughout the first half.
UNT led nearly the entire first half while the flashbulbs were popping on the concourse and went on a 12-0 run sparked by a pair of Maurice Aniefiok 3s to take control.
Jordan Williams converted a three-point play at the 6:56 mark to give the Mean Green its biggest lead at 24-11, bringing the crowd of 4,429 to its feet.
“Coach always tells me to bring a lot of energy from the bench,” Aniefiok said. “This was a game I thought I needed to step up and score. I gave us a boost early.”
Williams led UNT with 16 points, while Vertrail Vaughns added 11 and Aniefiok 10.
That trio couldn’t match the scoring punch that MTSU’s guards provided. Kerry Hammonds scored a game-high 18, while Jaqawn Raymond added 12 and Tweety Knight 11 off the bench.
Niko Hunter, a forward who also came off the bench, scored 13 and gave MTSU three reserves who finished in double figures.
Raymond scored seven points during MTSU’s game-changing run, but it was Hammonds who hit maybe the biggest shot. The senior pumped in a 3 at the halftime buzzer to pull MTSU within 32-28.
MTSU struggled against UNT’s 2-3 zone early but eventually adjusted.
“Hammonds got away from us in the zone,” Benford said. “The shot he hit at the end of the half was a dagger. That was a big shot.”
UNT went 7:04 with just one field goal — a Williams layup at the 18:53 mark of the second half —while MTSU made its run.
“We were more aggressive in the first half and finished plays,” Williams said. “In the second half, I don’t want to say that we were weak, but we looked for calls.”
UNT didn’t get them often enough and saw the game get away. The Mean Green was down by as many as 13 points in the second half before closing to within 63-59 after Vaughns hit a 3, swiped the ball from Knight and scored on the other end.
UNT just didn’t have enough ammunition, or time, to complete the rally.
UNT forward Kelvin Gaines was out with a concussion he suffered in practice, but Benford and his players wouldn’t blame their problems on being short-handed.
Benford said UNT didn’t get the stops it needed on the defensive end that had led to transition baskets and the Mean Green’s early lead.
When UNT did get looks later in the game, it didn’t convert.
UNT shot 52.2 percent in the first half and only 35.7 percent in the second. UNT was 10-0 when leading at halftime coming into the game.
“Coach kept telling us to finish at the rim,” Aniefiok said. “If we finished, we wouldn’t have been in this situation.”
That situation — looking back on a missed opportunity — was a bitter one for UNT.
“It was a big game,” Williams said. “It would have put us back at 3-3 and pushed us forward. We haven’t beaten Middle in a long time, and the fans came out. This would have been a big momentum changer.”
Middle Tennessee 70, North Texas 63
MIDDLE TENNESSEE (13-7, 3-2) – Jones 2-7 1-4 5, Upshaw 2-4 0-0 5, Rozier 1-2 2-2 4, Jefferson 1-3 0-0 2, Hammonds 5-8 6-6 18, Hunter 6-14 1-5 13, Phillips 0-0 0-0 0, Knight 4-5 3-4 11, Raymond 4-6 2-2 12, Tarrance 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 25-49 15-23 70.
NORTH TEXAS (11-9, 2-4) – Flannigan 2-2 0-1 4, Voss 3-4 1-1 7, Jones 3-7 3-4 9, Taylor 2-11 0-0 4, J. Williams 4-10 6-8 16, Vaughns 4-10 1-1 11, Aniefiok 3-5 2-2 10, Walton 0-0 0-0 0, A. Williams 1-2 0-0 2, Coleman 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 22-51 13-17 63.
Halftime – UNT 32-28. 3-point goals – MTSU 5-11 (Upshaw 1-1, Jefferson 0-2, Hammonds 2-5, Raymond 2-3), UNT 6-17 (Jones 0-1, Taylor 0-2, J. Williams 2-5, Vaughns 2-5, Aniefiok 2-4). Fouled out – none. Rebounds – MTSU 35 (Jones 9), UNT 26 (J. Williams 5). Assists – MTSU 6 (Knight 4), UNT 8 (Taylor 4). Total fouls – MTSU 19, UNT 18. A – 4,429.