When North Texas headed out for a key Conference USA road trip this week, the Mean Green men had one goal in mind — to move up in the league standings.
The opportunity seemed to be there with a game against a struggling Rice team first up.
That chance got away in a 75-70 loss and put the Mean Green in an unenviable position heading into a game at Louisiana Tech at 6 tonight.
UNT (11-11, 2-6 C-USA) is quickly falling further out of the race for a bye in the first round of the conference tournament and is in danger of falling under .500 for the first time since it was 2-3.
“If we want to play after the season, we need to put something together,” guard Chris Jones said of UNT’s postseason hopes. “We are better than where we are now and better than the way we are playing. We have to improve our defense, lock down and get stops when we need them.”
The UNT women (9-13, 3-6) are in a little better situation heading into their 2 p.m. game today at the Super Pit against Old Dominion (11-12, 4-5) after picking up a third conference win last week against UAB.
UNT nearly won consecutive games for just the second time this season in its last outing before blowing an 18-point lead in a 56-55 loss to Tulane.
The UNT women have lost in baffling fashion more than a few times this season, but their setback against Tulane might have been the most disheartening. UNT was up 55-53 with 7.1 seconds left and Leslie Vorpahl at the line for Tulane.
Vorpahl made the first free throw but missed the second. UNT was unable to grab the rebound before the ball ended up in the hands of Tiffany Dale, who hit a game-winning layup.
“We have competed but haven’t finished,” UNT women’s coach Mike Petersen said. “We have had some growing pains and need to make the plays when the game is on the line.
“The difference between 3-6 and 6-3 is a few tweaks. We will get over the hump.”
UNT’s hopes to continue that process against ODU will depend largely on its ability to contain Shae Kelley. The junior forward is averaging 17.3 points and 10.1 rebounds per game.
“Shea is a really good athlete and is productive from 17 feet in,” Petersen said. “She’s good in the high and low posts and is really good at what they do.”
Briesha Wynn and Alexis Hyder are averaging 11.0 and 10.2 points, respectively, to lead UNT.
The UNT men could face an even tougher challenge at Louisiana Tech, which is in the thick of the hunt for the C-USA title at 7-2 in league play. The Bulldogs are 19-5 overall, including a 10-1 mark at the Thomas Assembly Center.
Louisiana Tech junior guard Raheem Appleby is averaging 16.1 points per game while sophomore guard Alex Hamilton is adding 15.1 points. Junior center Michale Kyser leads C-USA with 3.3 blocks per game.
The Bulldogs are the highest-scoring team team in C-USA at 84.0 points per game and rank fifth in scoring defense with an average of 67.2 points.
“Those guys have been together awhile and are one of the best teams in the country defensively and are very aggressive,” UNT men’s coach Tony Benford said. “They also have a good shot blocker and are one of the top scoring teams in the country. They are very athletic and deep.”
UNT hoped to enter its game against the Bulldogs with momentum on its side after playing a Rice team stuck near the bottom of the C-USA standings.
That opportunity slipped away after UNT fell behind by 17 early and was unable to complete a comeback. UNT pulled within two on a pair of free throws from Jones, but Rice made all the key plays late.
Sean Obi hit a pair of jumpers in the closing moments of the second half, including one with 1:03 left that essentially finished off UNT.
Jordan Williams is leading UNT with an average of 12.5 points per game while Alzee Williams is adding 11.9 points an outing.
“We find ourselves in a tough situation playing a tough team like Louisiana Tech,” Benford said. “The bottom line is that, looking at the standings, if we’d won last night, we would have put ourselves in a good position. We can still move up if we win. We just haven’t been able to close games out.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 and via Twitter at @brettvito.