RUSTON, La. — There is still much to be established in the new-look Conference USA in terms of which teams will have the kind of home court where winning streaks go to die and losing streaks get another life.
Louisiana Tech appears to be building that kind of edge in its first season in the league. North Texas found that out the hard way in a 90-75 loss Saturday in its first visit to the Thomas Assembly Center in 13 years.
UNT entered the night on a three-game losing streak and in desperate need of a win to bolster its chances to finish among the top nine teams in the C-USA standings and earn a bye in the first round of the conference tournament.
The Mean Green appeared as if it was on its way to reaching that goal while jumping out to an early lead, but eventually crumbled in the face of the Bulldogs’ relentless pressure defense and aggressive offense that landed Tech on the line time and time again.
The win was the Bulldogs 10th straight at home and 36th in the last 41.
“It is a tough place to try to snap a skid, but we have to win,” UNT coach Tony Benford said. “That is the bottom line. We need a win in the worst way. If we get a couple of wins, we can get back on the right side and get a good seed.”
UNT’s opportunities to reach that goal are quickly dwindling.
UNT (11-12) fell to 2-7 in league play and dipped under the .500 mark overall for the first time since a Nov. 22 loss to Idaho dropped the Mean Green to 2-3.
UNT felt like it blew a golden opportunity when it fell to a struggling Rice team in the first game of its road trip Thursday, which made its game against the Bulldogs (20-5, 8-2) all the more vital.
“We had confidence coming into the road trip,” UNT’s Jordan Williams said. “We should have won against Rice but lost that one. We had to try to at least get one and split.”
Williams helped keep UNT’s hopes alive for much of the night while posting a double-double with 17 points and 10 rebounds. Alzee Williams added 11 points and Vertrail Vaughns 10.
Kenyon McNeail led Tech with 18 points and was one of five Bulldogs to finish in double figures.
Louisiana Tech scored more than a third of its points at the line, hitting 32 of 42 free throw attempts. The 42 tries were the most for a UNT opponent since Middle Tennessee shot 44 in an 89-80 overtime win over the Mean Green on Dec. 31, 2008.
“We are not the most aggressive team in this league,” Benford said. “They are and shot 42 free throws. That is the most anyone has shot against us. I can’t defend against that. I am telling my guys to play hard and defend without fouling. Shooting 42 free throws is crazy. I don’t understand that. I can’t say anything about the officials, but that is a lot of free throws and we were in a zone [defense] most of the game.”
UNT’s zone was effective in the first half before the Bulldogs adjusted and pulled away.
Tech worked the ball inside over and over after halftime and earned 30 free throws. The Bulldogs hit 24 of them and quickly blew the game open, turning a 37-36 halftime lead into a 21-point bulge.
McNeail and Kenneth Smith hit back-to-back 3s to cap an 8-0 run early in the second half that gave the Bulldogs a 50-40 lead and essentially put UNT away.
“They were pretty aggressive, but I left like we matched their intensity,” Vaughns said. “We just didn’t get the stops we needed and sent them to the line too much. Once they got the lead, we were just trading baskets. We couldn’t get stops.”
UNT’s struggles defensively spoiled a great start that saw the Mean Green hit four of its first six shots from the field and lead by as many as nine points.
“We were focused from the get-go and executed the game plan early,” Jordan Williams said.
The Mean Green’s performance in the opening moments was a dramatic improvement over UNT’s previous outing. Rice jumped all over UNT early and led by 17 in the first half of a game that the Mean Green ended up losing in the closing moments.
UNT grabbed control early with a 14-4 run and led 26-17 at the 7:08 mark of the first half after Alzee Williams converted a three-point play. The Mean Green held on to the lead until the closing moments of the half, which Tech ended on an 8-0 run.
Jaron Johnson capped the run with a corner 3 just before the halftime buzzer, giving the Bulldogs a 37-36 lead, its first since grabbing a 6-5 edge in the opening minutes.
Tech quickly built on that late run in the second half.
“Our zone was good in the first half,” Benford said. “In the second half, we didn’t get to their shooters and missed some open shots.”
Tech took advantage by getting to the line and quickly getting away from UNT, even though the Mean Green did a lot well, including outrebounding the Bulldogs 34-33 and shooting 50 percent from the field (28-for-56).
“We played hard and played to win,” Benford said. “We shot 50 percent and outrebounded them, but you look at the foul line — that is where we got beat.”
Tech honors Evans
Tech honored UNT assistant coach Rob Evans prior to tipoff.
Bulldogs head coach Michael White played for Evans during his tenure as Mississippi’s head coach. The pair helped lead Ole Miss to Southeastern Conference West Division titles and NCAA tournament appearances in 1997 and 1998.
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 and via Twitter at @brettvito.
Louisiana Tech 90, North Texas 75
NORTH TEXAS (11-12, 2-7) – Voss 4-4 1-2 9, Gaines 0-1 0-0 0, A. Wiliams 4-11 3-3 11, Jones 4-7 0-2 8, J. Williams 6-8 3-6 17, Vaughns 3-7 3-4 10, Aniefiok 3-6 0-0 7, Walton 3-7 0-0 9, Flannigan 0-0 0-0 0, Taylor 1-4 2-2 4, Coleman 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 28-56 12-19 75.
LOUISIANA TECH (20-5, 8-2) – Kyser 3-8 7-8 13, Anderson 3-11 5-6 12, Hamilton 3-6 9-14 15, Smith 5-7 2-3 16, J. Johnson 3-6 2-2 9, Massey 0-1 0-0 0, Gjuroski 0-1 0-0 0, C. Johnson 2-6 1-3 5, McNeail 4-6 6-6 18, Talbot 1-1 0-0 2. Totals 24-53 32-42 90.
Halftime – La. Tech 37-36. 3-point goals – UNT 7-16 (Jones 0-1, J. Williams 2-3, Vaughns 1-2, Aniefiok 1-3, Walton 3-6, Taylor 0-1), La. Tech 10-23 (Anderson 1-3, Hamilton 0-1, Smith 4-5, J. Johnson 1-4, Gjuroski 0-1, C. Johnson 0-3, McNeail 4-6). Fouled out – Jones, Vaughns. Rebounds – UNT 34 (J. Williams 10), La. Tech 33 (Kyser 8). Assists – UNT 14 (Jones 7), La. Tech 18 (Smith 10). Total fouls – UNT 27, La. Tech 14. Technical fouls – UNT bench, Gaines. A – 5,123.