North Texas didn’t have the easiest assignment when it came time for Senior Night and all that goes along with it in terms of saying goodbye to a few veteran players.
UNT drew Tulsa, a team that hammered the Mean Green by 31 earlier in the year and had a lot to play for, including at least a share of the Conference USA title on the final night of the regular season.
UNT pushed Tulsa all night before the Golden Hurricane made the key plays down the stretch to pull out a 79-68 win on Thursday night at the Super Pit.
While Tulsa celebrated a conference title, UNT was left to consider a path in next week’s C-USA tournament that is now just a little longer. The Mean Green came into the night with hopes to move up in the conference standings and earn a bye in the first round of the tournament.
Those hopes ended with its loss to Tulsa, leaving the Mean Green as the No. 10 seed. UNT will face Rice, the No. 15 seed, at 3:30 p.m. Tuesday in El Paso.
“We are disappointed,” UNT coach Tony Benford said. “It was Senior Night. We wanted this one, but everyone starts 0-0 [in the conference tournament]. We have to get ready for Rice. That is all we can do.”
UNT (15-15, 6-10 conference) enters the tournament having lost two straight, but Benford and his players say they have reason to feel good about the way they are playing after challenging Tulsa (18-12, 13-2). The Golden Hurricane drilled UNT 94-63 on Feb. 1.
“I am disappointed we lost, but with the way everyone played, I couldn’t have asked for more,” UNT guard Brandan Walton said. “We played to win.”
Walton and fellow senior guard Alzee Williams gave the Mean Green a chance to pull what would have been a big upset by each scoring 20 points in their last home game. Each displayed the traits that marked their careers. Williams, who ranks 18th in school history with 1,053 points, attacked the paint all night, while Walton tagged on four more 3s to his career total that stands at 89 in just 62 games.
“I was just doing whatever I could to make my team better,” Walton said. “I have been shooting the ball better and my teammates found me.”
Both wanted nothing more than to win their last home game.
“I was trying to give it my all,” Williams said.
That just wasn’t enough against a Tulsa team that ended the regular season on an eight-game winning streak. James Woodard and Rashad Ray each scored 18 points to lead four players who finished in double figures for Tulsa, which made a few key plays down the stretch to put away the Mean Green.
UNT trailed by as many as nine points in the second half but kept chipping away and pulled to within 61-59 with 5:27 left on a pair of Walton free throws.
Tulsa answered with a well-timed 6-0 run and gradually pulled away. The Golden Hurricane scored four of the points in that surge at the free-throw line, where Tulsa hit 29 of a whopping 43 attempts.
“They shot 43 free throws when we were in a zone,” Benford said. “That is the most anyone has shot against us all year, which is tough to swallow. We played zone 85 percent of the game and played off them.”
UNT never led and trailed by as many as seven points in the first half. The Mean Green appeared to be in trouble when two of its key players went down with injuries early on.
Point guard Chris Jones went down and grabbed his right leg at the 8:33 mark of the first half and went to the bench with the Mean Green trailing 26-19.
Walton went down just 50 seconds later when he took shot to the face that dazed him.
Both returned and helped UNT pull within 32-31 late in the first half on a Williams jumper. Ray answered with a 3 for Tulsa, which closed the half on a 5-0 run and led 37-31 at the break.
Walton returned, but Jones was limited to just seven minutes with what Benford said after the game is a twisted ankle. Despite playing just a few minutes, Jones recorded two assists and moved into a tie with Dominique Johnson for ninth on UNT’s single-season leaders list with 120.
Those milestones just didn’t mean a lot to UNT after the Mean Green saw its opportunity to upset Tulsa and earn a bye in the conference tournament slip away.
“This is a tough one” Benford said. “I’m really disappointed because my seniors, especially the two guys here with me [Williams and Walton], really played with a sense of urgency and tried to give us a chance to win.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 and via Twitter at @brettvito.
Tulsa 79, North Texas 68
TULSA (18-12, 13-2) — Smith 4-7 6-10 14, Wright 1-5 0-0 2, Peete 2-3 0-0 5, Woodard 5-14 7-8 18, Harrison 2-6 11-16 15, Ray 6-11 5-7 18, Evans 2-4 0-1 5, Swannegan 1-2 0-1 2. Totals 23-52 29-43 79.
NORTH TEXAS (15-15, 6-10) — Voss 1-6 1-2 3, Coleman 0-1 1-2 1, Vaughns 2-7 3-3 8, Walton 6-11 4-7 20, A. Williams 8-12 4-4 20, Aniefiok 1-6 0-0 3, Flannigan 0-0 0-0 0, Jones 0-4 0-0 0, Taylor 2-7 2-2 6, J. Williams 2-6 2-2 7, Gaines 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 22-60 17-22 68.
Halftime — Tulsa 37-31. Three-point goals — Tulsa 4-13 (Peete 1-1, Woodard 1-5, Harrison 0-1, Ray 1-3, Evans 1-3), UNT 7-21 (Vaughns 1-3, Walton 4-7, Aniefiok 1-5, Taylor 0-2, J. Williams 1-4). Fouled out — Voss, Aniefiok, Gaines. Rebounds — Tulsa 37 (Woodard, Harrison 8), UNT 37 (Taylor 8). Assists — Tulsa 9 (Peete, Woodard, Harrison, Ray 2). Total fouls — Tulsa 20, UNT 30. A — 1,841.