EL PASO — Tony Benford asked his players a simple question at halftime of North Texas opening-round game in the Conference USA tournament on Tuesday.
“Want to go home?”
Apparently they wanted to stick around for at least one more day.
The Mean Green played one of its worst halves of the season to start off against Rice before mounting a furious comeback that wasn’t complete until Owls guard Marcus Jackson’s jumper from inside the lane popped out at the end of overtime, giving UNT a dramatic 63-62 win at the Don Haskins Center.
Chris Jones hit the game-winning free throws for UNT after driving into the lane, drawing a foul and connecting on two attempts with 11.7 seconds left.
UNT, the No. 10 seed, advanced to face No. 7 Tulane in a second-round game at 1 p.m. today.
The Mean Green thought a lot about seeing the chance to extend its season slip away after a dismal first half that saw UNT trail by as many as 13.
“Coach talked to us at halftime and let us know that if we wanted to go home, to tell him now,” UNT guard Brandan Walton said. “We decided to dig in. We were not ready to go home.”
The win was UNT’s first in a C-USA tournament game after joining the league this season and the first conference tournament win for Benford, who is in his second season at UNT.
That milestone was particularly gratifying for Benford because of the way his team played on a day it faced adversity and had a host of players play a part in helping UNT overcome it.
“Our kids showed a lot of toughness and made plays,” Benford said. “Brandan Walton, Chris Jones and Colin Voss all made big shots, and we got the stops when we needed them.”
The Mean Green (16-15) snuck back over the .500 mark as a result and will at least break even after finishing 12-20 last season.
Walton led UNT with 17 points to lead UNT. Voss added 16 points and Jordan Williams added a double-double with 11 points and 14 rebounds.
Austin Ramljak led Rice (7-23) with 17 points, while Sean Obi added 12 points and Seth Gearhart 11.
Jones scored just four points, but they were the biggest points of the night for UNT.
The Mean Green has gone to its junior point guard whenever it has had the chance in the closing moments of games this season and saw him come through in the closing moments of both regulation and overtime.
Jones drove to the basket twice with the Mean Green trailing and the game on the line and converted both times.
“Chris Jones is a tough kid who has been through a lot of adversity since he has been here,” Benford said. “He stepped up and made some huge plays down the stretch.”
Those plays all came after Rice built a 56-49 lead with 2:08 remaining in regulation.
UNT closed to within 56-54 on a Walton 3 and a Williams layup.
Gearhart missed a 3 for Rice, which gave UNT a chance to tie the game coming out of a timeout with 27.4 seconds left.
UNT got the ball to Jones, who drove, drew a foul and hit both free throws with 23.4 seconds remaining.
Keith Washington had a chance to win the game at the buzzer for Rice but missed a jumper.
UNT trailed 62-58 with 1:51 left in overtime, but got a 3 from Walton with 1:38 left. Rice missed four straight free throws, which opened the door for UNT. The Mean Green again got the ball to Jones, who drove and drew a foul and hit both shots with 11.7 seconds left to give UNT a 63-62 lead.
Jackson had a good look on his buzzer-beating jumper for Rice, which left the Mean Green’s players holding their breath for a few seconds before knowing they were on their way to the second round when it rattled out.
“Sometimes the basketball gods are on your side,” Benford said. “We talk about contesting shots. They had a good look, but we challenged the shot. It went our way tonight.”
UNT made the plays to make sure that would be the case.
The Mean Green hit all four of its free throws in overtime, while Rice went just 3-for-8.
“We just stepped up and made them,” Voss said. “It was as simple as that. We practice them a lot. We just had to be tough and make our free throws. There is really nothing to it.”
There was plenty to UNT’s comeback.
UNT trailed 30-21 at halftime and narrowly avoided posting its lowest scoring total in the opening period of a game all season.
UNT shot 34.8 percent (8-for-23), missed all six of its 3-point attempts and just exceeded the season-low 20 points it scored in the opening half of a win over Portland in November.
Voss scored eight points for UNT, which didn’t have another player hit more than one field goal.
Rice led 13-12 in the early going before going on a 14-2 run and taking a 27-14 lead, its largest of the half.
UNT began its comeback a short time later after Benford challenged his team.
“I told our guys at halftime, we have 20 minutes or we are going home,” Benford said. “My seniors were not ready to go home. They did a great job.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 and via Twitter at @brettvito.
North Texas 63, Rice 62
RICE (7-23) — Obi 4-9 4-4 1, Gearhart 3-10 2-6 11, Guercy 1-4 0-1 2, Jackson 2-6 3-4 9, Ramljak 5-11 2-6 17, Peera 0-1 0-0 0, Kapic 1-2 0-1 2, Washington 0-5 0-2 0, Wilson 1-3 1-2 3, Drone 2-3 2-4 6. Totals 19-54 14-30 62.
NORTH TEXAS (16-15) — Flannigan 2-2 1-2 5, Voss 6-13 4-4 16, Walton 5-15 3-3 17, A. Williams 1-7 3-4 5, J. Wiliams 3-7 5-5 11, Vaughns 1-5 0-0 2, Aniefiok 0-2 1-2 1, Jones 0-2 4-4 4, Taylor 1-2 0-0 2, Gaines 0-0 0-0 0, Coleman 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 19-56 21-24 63.
Halftime — Rice 30-21. Three-point goals — Rice 10-23 (Gearhart 3-6, Guercy 0-1, Jackson 2-3, Ramljak 5-11, Kapic 0-1, Washington 0-1), UNT 4-19 (Walton 4-12, J. Williams 0-3, Vaughns 0-1, Aniefiok 0-2, Taylor 0-1). Fouled out — Voss, Aniefiok. Rebounds — Rice 38 (Obi 9), UNT 45 (J. Williams 14). Assists — Rice 11 (Jackson 4), UNT 8 (A. Williams 4). Total fouls — Rice 20, UT 21. A – NA.