EL PASO — Chris Jones landed just beyond the baseline at the Don Haskins Center and glanced at the official standing a few feet away, just like he had the day before.
North Texas’ point guard heard a whistle twice Tuesday at key points in the Mean Green’s win over Rice in the opening round of the Conference USA tournament and converted both times by hitting a pair of free throws.
UNT went with the same strategy with time running out in a closely contested second-round game Wednesday against Tulane.
This time, when Jones looked up after landing on the floor with UNT trailing by a point with 11 seconds left, there was nothing but silence.
UNT didn’t get the basket it needed. The Mean Green didn’t get the foul call either and saw its season come to an end with a 66-61 loss to the Green Wave.
“Chris got to the basket,” UNT coach Tony Benford said. “It was the same play we ran the other day. We didn’t get the call.
“We just didn’t finish.”
UNT, the No. 10 seed, had plenty of opportunities to finish off No. 7 Tulane, and not just at the end of the game.
The Mean Green blew a 13-point first-half lead and its opportunity to finish with a winning record for the first time under Benford. UNT posted a 16-16 mark in Benford’s second campaign after finishing 12-20 in his first year.
Tulane (17-15) advanced to face No. 2 Tulsa today in a quarterfinal game after making a few key plays down the stretch after UNT took its final lead at 58-56 with 3:19 left on a pair of free throws from Colin Voss.
Jonathan Stark tied the game with a jumper and hit a pair of free throws with 2:17 left to give Tulane a 60-58 lead.
Brandan Walton answered with a free throw at the 2:03 mark to pull the Mean Green within a point.
UNT squandered a key chance to get a look at a go-ahead shot when Tulane took three shots in what amounted to one possession. Stark missed a layup. Jordan Williams corralled the rebound for UNT, but Louis Dabney poked the ball away and picked up a steal.
Tre Drye then grabbed a Stark miss. By the time Tulane reset, it was forced to call a timeout with 1:07 left in the game and four seconds on the shot clock.
Tulane quickly got the ball to Dabney, who hit a back-breaking jumper that put the Green Wave up 62-59.
“That was a big possession,” Walton said. “We played good defense. He just made a tough shot.”
Walton answered with a jumper that pulled UNT to within 62-61.
UNT fouled Stark, who missed the front end of a one-and-one opportunity with 25.6 seconds left.
That miss gave UNT a chance to go to Jones, who forced overtime with his first pair of free throws against Rice and then won the game with his second pair at the end of the extra period.
Tulane went with the same strategy after Jones’ miss. Dabney drove, drew a foul from Voss and hit two free throws with 10.2 seconds left to extend Tulane’s lead to 64-61.
UNT had an opportunity to take a game-tying 3-pointer, but saw Walton’s shot come up short. Drye finished off the Mean Green with two free throws with 1.7 seconds left.
Walton led UNT with 16 points in the final game of his college career. Maurice Aniefiok scored 12 points off the bench and Voss added 10.
Stark scored a game-high 21 for Tulane and hit the big shots that left UNT pondering how it squandered an opportunity to advance to the C-USA quarterfinals. It also left the Mean Green trying to put its second season under Benford in perspective.
UNT beat Texas A&M, took four straight C-USA games in February and won its first conference tournament game since it was playing in the Sun Belt in the 2011-12 campaign. UNT experienced its lows as well, including finishing 11th in the 16-team C-USA standings. The Mean Green was the 10th seed only because Florida International was ineligible for the postseason.
“We made a lot of progress and know what it takes to compete in this league,” Benford said. “Our goal is to win a conference championship and get to the NCAA tournament. We are going to continue to work toward that and recruit toward that. Our program is headed in the right direction.”
UNT athletic director Rick Villarreal agreed with that assessment before the Mean Green faced Rice in its conference tournament opener.
“I feel good about the direction of the program,” Villarreal said. “How I judge things as an athletic director is when I go to practice, when I go to games and when I visit with coaches is by asking, ‘Are we moving forward or are we moving backward?’ There is no doubt we are moving forward.”
UNT appeared as if it would be moving on to the third round of the C-USA tournament after getting off to a great start against Tulane.
The Mean Green led 32-21 at the end of one of its more complete halves of the season. UNT went a perfect 8-for-8 from the free-throw line, hit four of its eight 3-point attempts and stifled Tulane defensively.
UNT ran out to a 15-4 lead and pushed its advantage to as many as 13 points, the last time at 24-11.
“Coach gave us a good game plan and we executed,” Aniefiok said. “We came out and played really hard and put everything we had out there.”
The complexion of the game changed midway through the second half, when Tulane heated up from 3-point range and hit four treys during a 15-3 run after UNT took a 48-37 lead on a Walton 3.
“We had to change our mindset,” Tulane coach Ed Conroy said. “I couldn’t get them moving. Instead of fighting it, I went to our quick-strike stuff. As soon as we saw a few shots go in, it really kick-started us. It’s a game of confidence and emotion.”
Tulane had that confidence in the end and pulled out the win.
When Benford looked back on the game, he saw it as one decided by two plays — a drive by Jones and a drive by Dabney.
“They went to the basket and got the call,” Benford said. “We went to the basket and didn’t get the call. That is part of the game.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 and via Twitter at @brettvito.
Tulane 66, North Texas 61
NORTH TEXAS (16-16) – Flannigan 1-1 0-0 2, Voss 3-10 4-4 10, Walton 5-7 3-4 16, A. Williams 3-4 0-0 6, J. Williams 1-7 1-2, J. Williams 1-7 1-2 4, Vaughns 2-4 5-6 9, Aniefiok 4-8 2-2 12, Jones 0-5 0-0 0, Taylor 0-1 2-2 2, Coleman 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 19-48 17-20 61.
TULANE (17-15) – Drye 3-7 2-5 9, Bruha 1-3 0-0 2, Dabney 2-6 2-4 6, Stark 8-16 4-6 21, Hook 4-9 0-0 11, Reynolds 3-4 0-0 9, Hearlithy 0-0 0-0 0, Thomas 1-1 1-2 3, Henson 1-1 2-2 5. Totals 23-47 11-19 66.
Halftime – UNT 32-21. Three-point goals – UNT 6-13 (Walton 3-5, J. Williams 1-3, Aniefioik 2-5), Tulane 9-17 (Drye 1-2, Dabney 0-1, Stark 1-3, Hook 3-7, Reynolds 3-3, Henson 1-1). Fouled out – none. Rebounds – UNT 25 (Coleman 5), Tulane 36 (Drye 11). Assists – UNT 10 (Jones 6), Tulane 10 (Stark 7). Total fouls – UNT 17, Tulane 17. A – NA.