An opportunity to snap a long losing skid appeared as if it might slip right through North Texas’ grasp in the closing seconds of its game against East Carolina on Saturday night.
UNT saw a 12-point edge dwindle to one and had to hold its collective breath when Prince Williams got not one but two good looks at potential game-winning shots in the final six seconds at the Super Pit.
Jordan Williams took care of one shot with a great defensive play, swatting away a short jumper. When Prince Williams missed the second from deep in the corner, UNT was on its way to a slump-busting 53-51 win over the Pirates.
UNT came into the night having lost five straight while plummeting all the way into a four-way tie for last place in Conference USA.
UNT officially crawled out of that hole with its win over ECU, one of the other three teams mired at the bottom of the league standings.
“It feels good to get a W,” UNT coach Tony Benford said. “It has been a while.”
UNT waited 23 days to be exact before a terrific defensive effort and a few clutch plays late helped pick up its 12th win and reach a milestone.
The Mean Green (12-13, 3-8) won 12 games last season, its first under Benford.
UNT can only improve from here on out, which is the Mean Green’s hope.
“It feels good when you have been on a losing streak to get the win that you wanted,” UNT guard Chris Jones said. “It gives you confidence. Hopefully it will give us the confidence we need to go on a run.”
Vertrail Vaughns led UNT with 13 points and was the only Mean Green player to finish in double figures. Jones fell just short with nine points in a solid all-around effort that included six rebounds, four assists and four steals.
Caleb White led ECU (13-13, 2-9) with a game-high 17 points, while Prince Williams added 15.
UNT appeared as if it would coast to its win over ECU when Brandan Walton hit a 3 with 9:21 left that gave the Mean Green a 50-38 lead.
Considering the game was a low-scoring, defensive wrestling match most of the way, that edge appeared pretty safe.
That quickly changed when ECU’s Caleb White started raining in 3s. The freshman hit back-to-back shots and then added a layup to pull ECU to within 50-46.
Alzee Williams answered for UNT when he took a feed from Jones off a steal and dunked to push UNT’s lead to six with 4:36 left.
The Mean Green turned the ball over three times, didn’t hit a field goal the rest of the way and managed just one point on Jones’ free throw.
“We didn’t execute down the stretch and committed a couple of turnovers that could have hurt us,” Benford said. “We have to work on that. We have to be strong with the ball finishing the game.”
ECU capitalized with a pair of Prince Williams free throws and then a 3 from Richmond with 49 seconds left.
UNT was hardly out of the woods at that point considering the Pirates came into the night ranked second in C-USA with an average of 75.8 points a game and had the league’s best 3-point shooter at its disposal. Richmond ranked first heading into the night with an average of 4.6 3-pointers made a game.
UNT survived, thanks to some solid defense late.
ECU got the ball to Prince Williams, who drove into the paint, where Jordan Williams was waiting and blocked the shot. Richmond grabbed the rebound and found Prince Williams in the corner, where he missed ECU’s last shot.
“We did a great job defensively on Richmond, one of the top scorers in our league and the best 3-point shooter in the country,” Benford said. “Our guys were very active and talked. He got off nine, but only made two of them. That was because we were active in the zone and contested shots.”
UNT knew all along that would be the key to containing Richmond and breaking its losing streak.
“It was a good all-around effort defensively,” Vaughns said. “We talked all week about getting to their shooters. We did a good job in the game.”
UNT honored its football team that finished 9-4 and beat UNLV in the Heart of Dallas Bowl at halftime. Several dozen members of the team were at the game including bowl game MVP Derek Thompson, UNT’s starting quarterback.
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 and via Twitter at @brettvito.
North Texas 53, East Carolina 51
EAST CAROLINA (13-13, 2-9) — Zangari 3-7 1-2 7, Richmond 2-9 0-0 6, White 7-15 0-0 17, Robinson 1-4 0-0 3, Campbell 0-6 0-0 0, Williams 6-10 2-2 15, Stith 1-1 1-2 3. Totals 20-52 4-6 51.
NORTH TEXAS (12-13, 3-8) — Voss 4-6 0-0 8, Coleman 2-3 0-0 4, A. Williams 1-7 0-0 2, Jones 4-6 1-2 9, J. Williams 2-10 0-0 4, Vaughns 4-8 2-2 13, Aniefiok 0-5 0-0 0, Walton 1-3 2-2 5, Flannigan 0-0 0-0 0, Taylor 2-3 1-2 6, Gaines 1-2 0-0 2, Totals 21-53 6-8 53.
Halftime — UNT 28-27. 3-point goals — ECU 7-23 (Richmond 2-9, White 3-8, Robinson 1-1, Campbell 0-2, Williams 1-3), UNT 5-19 (Jones 0-1, J. Williams 0-5, Vaughns 3-5, Aniefiok 0-4, Walton 1-3, Taylor 1-1). Fouled out — Campbell. Rebounds — ECU 28 (Zangari 11), UNT 39 (Voss 7). Assists — ECU 8 (Williams 3), UNT 11 (Jones 4). Total fouls — ECU 11, UNT 9. A — 5,352.