There were few aspects of last season that were more frustrating for North Texas than its inability to hit anything from beyond the 3-point arc.
Shooting from deep wasn’t a problem Thursday night in the Mean Green’s 92-78 win over Nicholls State at the Super Pit.
Maurice Aniefiok hit all three shots he took from behind the arc and Jordan Williams nearly matched his perfect percentage, hitting three of his four 3s in a performance UNT is hoping is a sign of what is to come the rest of the season.
UNT went 7-for-11 from 3-point range on the night, which marked a dramatic improvement from a year ago. The Mean Green shot just 28.5 percent from behind the arc last season, a total that ranked last in the Sun Belt Conference.
“It opens the floor for us when we have all those shooters out there,” UNT coach Tony Benford said. “It was good for us. Sometimes recruiting takes care of shooting. Maurice is a good 3-point shooter. T.J. Taylor is too, even though he didn’t take any tonight, and Jordan Williams is when he takes good shots.”
UNT got those good looks and knocked most of them down on an all-around good shooting night that also saw the Mean Green hit 39 free throws, the fourth-highest total in school history, on a whopping 46 attempts.
Aniefiok scored 21 points to lead four players who finished in double figures for UNT. Vertrail Vaughns added 17 points, while Alzee Williams added 16 and Jordan Williams 14.
Dantrell Thomas led Nicholls State (0-2) with a game-high 27.
Vaughns, Aniefiok, Jordan Williams and Brandan Walton took all of UNT’s 3s while helping spread the floor. That opened up space for UNT, which needed an offensive burst to break open what was a close game in the second half.
Thomas scored four straight points for Nicholls State and tied the game at 70 when he cut through the backdoor and dunked with 5:07 remaining.
UNT quickly pulled away from there, thanks to a few clutch plays down the stretch, including a three-point play from Jordan Williams that put the Mean Green up for good. The layup and ensuing free throw sparked an 8-0 UNT run.
“That three-point play was the momentum changer,” Taylor said.
The Mean Green rolled from there, closing the game on a 22-8 run in Taylor’s UNT debut. The former Denison standout who began his career at Oklahoma and also spent time at Paris Junior College and Marquette entered the game at the 17:07 mark of the second half and immediately drove to the basket and hit a layup for his first points with the Mean Green.
“It felt pretty good to get out there,” Taylor said. “I had some jitters after I sat out the whole first half. I went out there cold turkey, but I fought through it. It felt good to be back out there. I saw a gap and coach was telling us to attack. It felt pretty good to score.”
Benford expects Taylor to make an immediate impact, largely because he can bolster UNT’s already improved shooting from 3-point range.
“It was great for our team to have T.J. back,” Benford said. “He knows how to play, can shoot it, drive it and pass it. He needs to get better defensively like all our guys, but he is going to help us. He’s another guy with a big body who can play that teams are going to have to guard.”
Aniefiok showed that he is another one of those types of players in his breakout performance against Nicholls State that included a key shooting run.
UNT trailed by as many as eight and didn’t take its first lead until Aniefiok heated up in the closing moments before halftime.
The Mean Green was down 28-20 when Aniefiok hit his first 3, sparking UNT. The sophomore hit three 3s in the final 6:08 of the first half, including one that gave UNT its first lead at 33-32.
The Mean Green went 4-for-6 from behind the arc in first half and led 38-36 at the break.
“I got on a bit of a run,” Aniefiok said. “I took it upon myself because I knew we needed to score. They left me open. I had to take them.”
Those shots changed the game for UNT.
“We were stagnant a little bit and Maurice opened it up for us,” Benford said. “He shot them with confidence. That is something he can do for us.”
UNT believes Aniefiok is just one player on its roster this year who is capable of getting on a roll.
The arsenal of shooters is one reason UNT believes it won’t experience the same shooting problems it experienced last season. The Mean Green will head off to Portland, Ore., next week shooting a respectable 39.1 percent from 3-point range after its win over Nicholls State, thanks largely to Aniefiok.
“Maruice was solid, made big shots and rebounded the ball,” Benford said. “He’s a good player. He sat out all of last year and is trying to get into a groove and rhythm. He got into one for us tonight.”
North Texas 92, Nicholls State 78
NICHOLLS STATE (0-2) – Liam 0-1 0-0 0, Horace 3-4 0-0 6, Thomas 10-15 7-12 27, Smith 3-10 2-6 9, Rillieux 1-6 1-2 3, Torres 2-5 2-2 7, Maciel 0-0 0-0 0, Julien 0-1 0-0 0, Frye 1-2 0-0 2, Towers 0-3 0-0 0, Carpenter 6-9 0-1 17, Doyle 2-9 2-2 7.
NORTH TEXAS (2-1) – Flannigan 0-1 1-2 1, Coleman 4-6 0-0 8, Vaughns 4-4 8-10 17, Walton 2-8 4-4 8, A. Williams 2-7 12-14 16, Aniefiok 6-8 6-7 21, Jones 0-2 5-6 5, Taylor 1-1 0-0 2, J. Williams 4-10 3-3 14, Voss 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 23-47 39-46 92.
Halftime – UNT 38-36. 3-point goals – NS 8-22 (Thomas 0-1, Smith 1-2, Torres 1-2, Towers 0-2, Carpenter 5-8 Doyle 1-7), UNT 7-11 (Vaughns 1-1, Walton 0-3, Aniefiok 3-3, J. Williams 3-3). Fouled out – none. Rebounds – NS 26 (Smith 8), UNT 44 (Aniefiok 10). Assists – NS 12 (Thomas 5), UNT 9 (A. Williams 4). Total fouls – NS 29, UNT 18. A 2,146.