North Texas coach Tony Benford and his players have vowed to keep fighting no matter how bleak the situation gets late in a season when nothing seems to have gone right for the Mean Green.
UNT did just that Thursday in a 70-59 loss to traditional Sun Belt Conference power Western Kentucky at the Super Pit.
UNT has just eight healthy scholarship players left and very little hope that reinforcements will arrive before the end of the season. The team announced this week that senior forwards Jacob Holmen and Justin Patton had elected to end their college careers due to injury.
The realization has set in since that UNT (8-17, 3-11 Sun Belt) will have to get by with the players it has.
That won’t be easy for the Mean Green, which pushed another Sun Belt opponent to the edge before falling and seeing its late-season slump extended. UNT has lost five straight — its longest losing streak since the 2008-09 season.
“It’s tough when you have injuries,” Benford said. “We have guys out there who are playing a lot of minutes. They are playing hard, but we have a smaller margin for error because when we go to our bench, we only have three guys there.”
Four of UNT’s starters played at least 33 minutes. Tony Mitchell played just 28, but only because he was in foul trouble.
Those players helped UNT mount a comeback late in the second half after it appeared as if WKU (13-11, 7-6) had put the Mean Green away.
George Fant hit a free throw at the 6:52 mark after drawing a foul from Jordan Williams that put the Hilltoppers up 51-40.
UNT appeared as if it was done for the night, but it quickly mounted a comeback. Roger Franklin hit a layup and converted a three-point play.
Tony Mitchell then hit another layup before Williams converted another three-point play. Williams then hit a 3-pointer that tied the game at 51 after an 11-0 run over the course of just 2:19 that brought the crowd to its feet.
WKU answered with a three-point play from Fant that started a 10-2 run that buried the Mean Green.
“We fought back after being down double digits and tied it,” Franklin said. “We are right there. We have to keep pushing. We are focusing on being great when it comes to the [Sun Belt] tournament. We are playing for seeding. It’s very hard to fight that hard and still come up with a loss. We will be OK. We just have to keep fighting.”
Fant and Jamal Crook each scored 14 points to pace WKU.
Alzee Williams led four players who scored in double figures for UNT with 17 points. Jordan Williams added 15, Mitchell had a double-double with 14 points and 13 rebounds and Franklin added 12.
UNT’s four double-digit scorers accounted for all but one of UNT’s points, a free throw by backup forward Keith Coleman.
“It’s very tough when only four people are scoring,” Alzee Williams said. “The coaches say we have to have other people step up because of injuries. Everyone has to bring it on both ends of the court.”
The situation is even tougher for UNT because Mitchell is dealing with a sprained foot that has kept him out of practice for most of the last week.
Mitchell looked fine early in the game when he was particularly aggressive.
The sophomore picked up a steal in the open floor and cruised to the rim for a dunk to spark the Mean Green, which ran out to an 11-2 lead.
WKU didn’t score until Fant hit a layup at the 16:16 mark.
Benford said that Mitchell was as aggressive as he has been at any point all season early in the game.
UNT had a 21-13 lead after Jordan Williams got loose for a dunk with 5:17 left in the half, but it saw that edge vanish in a flash before halftime.
T.J. Price hit a 3 before Jordan Williams answered with a free throw that only staved the tide during a 14-3 run to end the half by WKU, which led 27-24 at the break.
WKU appeared as if it would put UNT away early in the second half, but it needed to make a few key plays during its late run to pull away. Brandon Harris hit a huge 3-pointer in WKU’s game-ending run.
UNT also had a chance to close out Arkansas State on Saturday but was pushed to overtime and saw the Red Wolves pull away.
“We are putting ourselves in position to win games,” Benford said. “We have to close them.”
That is going to be harder to do with a shorthanded team, but the challenge is one UNT’s players say they are ready to face.
“We are going to have to fight through it,” Alzee Williams said. “We have about seven healthy guys. We have to keep bringing it every day, coming to practice and working hard.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870. His e-mail address is email@example.com .
WESTERN KENTUCKY 70, NORTH TEXAS 59
WESTERN KENTUCKY (13-11, 7-6) — Fant 6-16 2-3 14, Rostov 2-3 0-0 4, Harris 3-5 1-2 10, Crook 5-8 3-4 14, Price 3-10 1-2 9, Anyigbo 1-3 0-0 2, Kaspar 2-6 2-2 6, Dickerson 1-2 0-0 3, Akamune 4-6 0-0 8, Drane 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 27-60 9-13 70.
NORTH TEXAS (8-17, 3-11) — Mitchell 3-10 7-8 14, Franklin 5-15 2-3 12, A. Williams 7-10 3-5 17, Hardwick 0-1 0-0 0, J. Williams 5-19 2-3 15, Overlander 0-2 0-0 0, Stojiljkovic 0-1 0-0 0, Coleman 0-1 1-4 1. Totals 20-59 15-23 59.
Halftime — WKU 27-24. Three-point goals — WKU 7-17 (Rostov 0-1, Harris 3-5, Crook 1-2, Price 2-6, Kaspar 0-2, Dickerson 1-1), UNT 4-17 (Mitchell 1-6, J. Williams 3-8, Overlander 0-2, Stojiljkovic 0-1). Fouled out — none. Rebounds —WKU 38 (Fant 8), UNT 39 (Mitchell 13). Assists — WKU 12 (Crook, Price 3), UNT 6 (Hardwick 4). Total fouls — WKU 16, UNT 17. A — 3,528