North Texas wasn’t exactly set up for success heading into its Conference USA debuts this week.
The league shipped the UNT women to Middle Tennessee, which had beaten the Mean Green 10 straight times, for its opener on Wednesday. The UNT men played their first league game at home Thursday, but did so against what might be the conference’s best team in Southern Mississippi.
The Mean Green lost both games in what could turn out to be the squads’ toughest games in league play and will get a second crack at their first conference wins today.
The UNT men will take on Tulane at 1 p.m. at the Super Pit in a rare Saturday afternoon game before the UNT women visit Charlotte at 8 p.m.
The Mean Green men (9-6, 0-1 C-USA) head into that game with at least a little to feel good about after charging back from a 14-point halftime deficit to close within one in its game against Southern Miss before the Golden Eagles pulled away for a 74-64 win. The loss snapped UNT’s four-game winning streak.
The UNT women (6-8, 0-1) had an even tougher time at MTSU, which pummeled the Mean Green 86-42.
“There are a lot of positives from tonight,” UNT men’s coach Tony Benford said Thursday. “We have to make free throws, because we are going to continue to be aggressive. We talk about paint touches all the time. When we go to the line, we have to make free throws. That’s the bottom line.”
UNT went just 12-of-22 from the line against Southern Miss and struggled at times offensively against one of the nation’s elite defensive teams. The Golden Eagles entered the game leading C-USA with an average of 62.1 points allowed per game.
The Mean Green shot just 34.8 percent (8-for-23) from the field in the first half. Jordan Williams scored 17 points and Maurice Aniefiok added 12 to help spark UNT’s rally that ultimately came up short.
UNT believes that if it plays today like it did in the second half against Southern Miss, it will have a good chance to break through for its first league win against Tulane (8-8). Tulsa hammered the Green Wave 97-71 on Thursday.
The key could be containing a trio of Tulane guards who are all averaging at least 15.0 points per game. Sophomore Louis Dabney leads the Green Wave with an average of 18.2 points a game.
“We will have to contain them, contest the 3-point shot and keep them in front of us,” Benford said.
UNT feels good about its chances to do just that in addition to doing a better job of scoring in transition after making a run at upsetting Southern Miss.
“That was a motivational game,” Williams said. “They are the best team in the conference.”
The UNT women were in a similar spot in their C-USA opener against MTSU, which has advanced to the last five NCAA tournaments.
UNT turned to a unique strategy in an effort to break through against the Lady Raiders. The Mean Green collapsed in on MTSU forward Ebony Rowe, one of the nation’s leading scorers, and left center KeKe Stewart alone at the 3-point arc.
UNT dared Stewart to take uncontested 3s and watched as she pumped in a conference-record 11 while tying the NCAA mark for attempts with 26.
“If they’re just going to sit back in the paint and let me shoot, then coach is going to have a field day with that and I am too,” Stewart said after the game.
UNT women’s coach Mike Petersen was more upset with the 24 turnovers UNT committed than the shots Stewart made.
“You can’t allow a team of their caliber to have as many points off turnovers and second-chance points and expect to win,” Petersen said. “We are a mature team, and we won’t allow this to get to us as we head to Charlotte.”
Junior forward Briesha Wynn is averaging 9.6 points per game to lead UNT, which will face a Charlotte team coming off a 80-59 win over Old Dominion in its C-USA opener.
Senior guard Ny Hammonds is averaging 12.2 points per game to lead the 49ers, who have won three of their last four games.
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 and via Twitter at @brettvito.