BOCA RATON, Fla. — Nothing came easy for North Texas during its two-game trip to Florida. In the end, the Mean Green got just what it was looking for.
For the second time on the trip, UNT saw a late lead evaporate before hanging on in the closing seconds, this time for a 78-76 win over Florida Atlantic on Saturday at FAU Arena.
The Mean Green watched a 10-point lead dwindle and had to hold its breath as a potential game-tying 3-pointer from Plano native Marquan Botley rolled out in the closing seconds.
When it did, UNT was on its way to its third straight two-point win, a streak that includes a victory at Florida International on Thursday.
“This is what we talked about,” UNT coach Tony Benford said. “Sometimes the schedule does come back to you if you take care of games. We are sitting in ninth place and have a chance to move even higher.”
That opportunity is there for UNT (14-13, 5-8 Conference USA) largely because it was able to outscore FAU in a wide-open game that saw both teams light it up offensively.
FAU (10-18, 5-8) shot a whopping 62.1 percent (18-for-29) from the field in the first half behind the inside-outside combination of center Justin Raffington and guard Pablo Bertone, who scored 27 and 26 points, respectively.
UNT didn’t exactly shut down the Owls late, but managed to at least contain them. That allowed the Mean Green to turn the tide in the second half behind a balanced attack led by Jordan Williams. The junior finished with 19 points and was one of three UNT players who finished in double figures.
Colin Voss and Brandan Walton each added 10 for UNT, which has dramatically improved its chances to earn a bye in the Conference USA tournament during its winning streak.
The top four teams in the conference standings will receive a double bye, while the next five teams will receive a first-round bye.
UNT is in a four-way tie for ninth place with Charlotte, FAU and FIU.
“Every game counts,” UNT guard Vertrail Vaughns said. “We are going to go out there and do what we can to win games.”
UNT did just enough late after blowing most of what looked like a comfortable lead late for the second straight game.
UNT was up 64-54 in the second half after T.J. Taylor hit a layup, but quickly saw that lead evaporate.
Botley banked in a 3-pointer that pulled FAU to within 74-73 before the Owls called a timeout with 25.8 seconds left. FAU fouled Vaughns, who hit both free throws to put UNT up 76-73.
“They started knocking down shots; we turned it over and missed a couple of free throws,” Williams said of how UNT squandered its lead.
The Owls nearly knocked down what would have been a huge 3 in the closing seconds. FAU worked the ball to Botley, who had a good look at a corner 3 that appeared as if it might fall before spinning out.
“Botley got a great look,” Benford said. “We were fortunate. The ball has not bounced our way at times; today it did.”
Botley’s late miss allowed the Mean Green to complete a comeback after falling behind by nine in the first half.
The Mean Green closed to within 41-36 at the break when Walton hit a corner 3 at the buzzer.
“They got an open 3 at the end of the half and hit it,” FAU coach Mike Jarvis said. “That was huge.”
UNT went 6-for-9 from 3-point range in the first half, when Williams went 3-for-4 from behind the arc.
“I had some smaller guys on me and I got some open shots,” Williams said. “The guys did a good job of getting the ball to me.”
UNT needed all it could get from Williams while it struggled to contain Bertone, who hit seven of his eight shots and scored 16 points before the break.
Bertone scored his first point before the opening tip when UNT was called for a technical foul in pregame warm-ups.
Benford said the officials told him before the opening jump that they were calling a technical on Williams for hanging on the rim. Bertone hit one of the two foul shots before the opening tip.
UNT quickly turned the tide in the second half, which it opened on a 10-3 run.
Williams capped the run with a layup that gave UNT its first lead since the opening moments of the first half at 46-44.
The Mean Green continued to build on that lead while limiting Bertone to 10 points in the second half, but still had to hang on late.
“We couldn’t guard them in the first half in zone or man,” Benford said. “I told our guys if we execute and get stops we will win, and we did. We executed down the stretch and hit free throws.”
UNT will head back to Denton in a lot better position in the conference standings as a result of sweeping its Florida swing.
UNT guard Chris Jones finished with four assists and moved into seventh place in program history with 265, passing Deon Hunter, who had 262 in a career that spanned from 1986-89.
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 and via Twitter @brettvito.
North Texas 78, Florida Atlantic 76
NORTH TEXAS (14-13, 5-8) – Flannigan 1-2 0-0 2, Voss 4-6 2-2 10, A. Williams 1-2 0-1 2, Jones 3-7 3-4 9, J. Williams 6-8 4-5 19, Vaughns 1-3, 4-4 6, Aniefiok 3-6 1-2 9, Walton 3-6 2-2 10, Taylor 1-2 1-4 3, Gaines 3-4 0-0 6, Coleman 1-3 0-0 2. Totals 27-49 17-24 78.
FLORIDA INTERNATIONAL (10-18, 5-8) – Penn 2-2 1-2 5, Raffington 10-18 7-12 27, Botley 2-7 2-2 8, Trapp 1-3 0-0 3, Bertone 11-16 2-3 26, Johnson 2-5 0-0 5, Sekelja 1-2 0-0 2, Morrow 0-0 0-0 0, Hornstein 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 29-53 12-19 76.
Halftime – FAU, 41-36. Three-point goals – UNT 7-14 (Jones 0-1, J. Williams 3-4, Aniefiok 2-3, Walton 2-5, Taylor 0-1), FAU 6-14 (Botley 2-7, Trapp 1-2, Bertone 2-3, Johnson 1-2). Fouled out – Gaines. Rebounds – UNT 24 (Gaines 4), FAU 31 (Three tied, 7). Assists – UNT 12 (Jones 4), FAU 17 (Botley 7). Total fouls – UNT 16, FAU 15. A – NA.