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UNT shows flashes of top form during run in win against Grambling State

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Brett Vito, Staff Writer

North Texas has shown flashes of solid play in the early stages of Grant McCasland's first season as the Mean Green's head coach.

UNT found that groove again for seven minutes early in the second half of its game against Grambling State on Monday at the Super Pit.

The way UNT played in that stretch was the biggest reason it picked up an 82-77 win that will send it into a tough set of games later this week on the right side of .500.

UNT (4-3) was locked in a back-and-forth game with the Tigers (1-5) and trailed by two at halftime before exploding for a 23-4 run to open the second half behind point guard Ryan Woolridge.

The Mean Green needed bit of that edge in closing moments when Grambling worked its way back into the game.

"We came out and executed early in the second half to get that lead," McCasland said. "We jumped on them. Ryan guarding [Grambling point guard Ivy Smith Jr.] was the difference in the game."

UNT trailed 38-36 at halftime before McCasland made a few key adjustments.

"Coach talked about guarding the ball, playing defense and getting stops," UNT forward Zachary Simmons said. "When we do that, we can run in transition, which leads to easy buckets. That is what led to the run, stops and getting out in transition."

Simmons started UNT's run with a dunk off an assist from forward Shane Temara. Roosevelt Smart pumped in a 3, and Temara tipped in his own miss to give UNT seven points within the first 65 seconds of the second half.

UNT was just getting started at that point.

When Jorden Duffey dropped in a 3 at the 13-minute mark, UNT was up 59-40 and appeared to be in cruise control.

Woolridge and the Mean Green gave Grambling fits during that stretch while forcing four turnovers.

"That was our best stretch of basketball," Smart said. "Ryan did a great job on their point guard and got us going and in transition."

The Mean Green are still in the process of discovering a way to play at the level it did during that stretch on a consistent basis.

They lost their form almost as quickly as they found it in the second half and allowed Grambling State back into the game.

The Tigers tied the game at 72 on an Axel Mpoyo layup with 2:58 left.

Smart answered with a jumper before Woolridge picked up a steal and made two free throws.

Grambling guard Shirmane Thomas hit a deep 3 to cut UNT's lead to 77-75 with 1:13 left.

A.J. Lawson made one of two free throws with 43 seconds remaining. Smith trimmed UNT's lead to 78-77 with 27 seconds left with two free throws, but the Tigers would get no closer.

Duffey and Smart hit four straight free throws in the final 25 seconds, and UNT hung on for the win.

When asked if there was something good to be said for a young team finding a way to win, McCasland left little doubt as to his opinion.

"100 percent," UNT's coach said. "We had some solid possessions, got the ball to the right people and made free throws."

Smart made several of those key plays on his way to scoring 23 points, his fourth game with at least 20 points this season. The sophomore was one of five players who finished in double figures for UNT. Lawson added 12 and was UNT's next leading scorer.

Diontae Jones paced Grambling with 16 points.

The win came at an ideal time for UNT, which came into the game off a loss to Georgia Tech. The Mean Green have games looming against Oklahoma on Thursday and Texas-Arlington on Saturday.

Both of those upcoming games rank among the bigger challenges UNT will face in nonconference play this season.

The Mean Green will need to be at their best to win those games.

UNT showed flashes of that potential during its game-changing run in its win against Grambling.

BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 and via Twitter at @brettvito.

North Texas 82, Grambling 77

GRAMBLING (1-5) -- Mpoyo 3-9 3-4 9, Jones 6-11 0-0 16, Perry-Murray 2-4 4-4 8, Smith 4-10 7-7 15, Ribeiro 3-8 0-0 7, Gaston 4-7 0-0 8, Thomas 5-6 0-0 12, Wilks 1-6 0-0 2, Jackson 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 28-61 14-15 77.

NORTH TEXAS (4-3) -- Simmons 5-5 1-3 11, Temara 4-8 0-0 8, Woolridge 4-8 3-3 11, Lawson 5-9 1-2 12, Smart 6-9 8-8 23, Duffy 3-6 2-2 10, Holston 1-1 0-0 2, Arikawe 1-2 0-0 2, Fuller 1-1 0-0 2, Miller 0-2 1-2 1, Draper 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 30-52 16-20 82.

Halftime - Grambling 38-36 Three point goals - Grambling 7-16 (Mpoyo 0-1, Jones 4-6, Smith 0-1, Ribeiro 1-2, Gaston 0-1, Thomas 2-2, Wilks 0-3) UNT 6-19 (Temara 0-1, Woolridge 0-2, Lawson 1-3, Smart 3-6, Duffy 2-4, Miller 0-2, Draper 0-1) Fouled out - Smith Rebounds - Grambling 31 (Mpoyo 7), UNT 28 (Temara 6) Assists - Grambling 12 (Smith 7), UNT 14 (Woolridge 7) Total fouls - Grambling 20, UNT 16 A - 1,513

FEATURED PHOTO: North Texas sophomore guard A.J. Lawson drives to the basket during the Mean Green's win over Grambling State at the Super Pit. (Jake King/DRC)