North Texas has taken a significant step forward in each of Jalie Mitchell's first two seasons guiding the team she once starred for in a Hall of Fame career.
UNT appeared to be well on its way to another milestone campaign Saturday, when it ran past Oklahoma Panhandle State in the second half of a 63-41 win at the Super Pit.
UNT was locked in a tight game with what appeared to be an overmatched NAIA opponent before opening the second half on a 12-0 run.
The Mean Green cruised from there and wrapped up their nonconference slate at 9-3, a dramatic jump from the 3-8 mark they posted at the same point last year.
That improvement has Mitchell and her players feeling good about where they are at heading into their Conference USA opener Wednesday at Louisiana Tech.
"We have a very competitive team and will go into Louisiana Tech ready," Mitchell said. "We are going to prepare like we always do. We are going to make sure we show that we are ready to compete for a championship and not just a win here or there."
Mitchell said she believes her team is ready to reach that goal.
"I see them every day," UNT's coach said. "I know what they bring to the table."
UNT's confidence grew with the way it closed its game against Oklahoma Panhandle State, a team that presented a bigger challenge than expected.
The Aggies (8-3) led by as many as four in the first half before UNT regrouped and dominated the second half behind the freshman duo of Lauren Holmes and Deja Terrell.
Holmes has been one of UNT's key offensive weapons all season and finished with a double-double of 19 points and 13 rebounds. Both totals were game highs.
What was even more encouraging was the way Terrell performed on her way to scoring a season-high 15 points to go with six rebounds.
Terrell came into the night with only 36 points on the season.
"The young players have definitely progressed," Terrell said. "Starting off, I wasn't confident in myself. I had to get used to how they play the game here. I am confident we can compete with anybody. We are ready."
UNT didn't look like it was ready when OPSU opened the second quarter on a 5-0 run. Monti Regier capped the burst with a 3-pointer to put the Aggies up 19-17. Regier led the Aggies with 13 points.
UNT answered late in the half with a 9-0 run behind seven straight points from Holmes, whose three-point play put the Mean Green up 26-21.
That burst was a sign of what was to come from UNT, which held the Aggies scoreless for the first 5:41 of the second half and quickly pulled away for the win.
"It all starts with defense," Holmes said. "Getting turnovers and scoring in transition is a big part of who we are."
UNT is hoping to show it is a legitimate contender in C-USA. The Mean Green were picked to finish eighth in the league after finishing 12-19 overall and 8-10 in conference play last season.
UNT believes it is capable of a much better finish, especially if it can continue to play the way it did in the second half of its game against OPSU. The Mean Green gave up 12 points in the second half.
It's that type of defense that allowed UNT to enter the day ranked third nationally in scoring defense with an average of 51.1 points allowed per game.
"I was proud of the second half," Mitchell said. "We need that same energy for all 40 minutes in all 16 of our conference games."
UNT believes that if it can reach that goal it will continue its upward progression as a program when C-USA plays starts.
The Mean Green won five conference games in Mitchell's first season and then eight in her second season.
UNT will match its win total of 12 from last season with three more wins, but it has its sights set on much higher goals after wrapping up its nonconference slate.
"No. 1 is the goal," Mitchell said. "I expect us to compete for that night in and night out. We have gotten better every year and have a lot of competitive people who want to win."
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 and via Twitter at @brettvito.
North Texas 63, Oklahoma Panhandle State 41
|Oklahoma Panhandle State||14||15||3||9||--||41|
OKLAHOMA PANHANDLE STATE (8-2) -- Faulks 2-7 1-1 5, Munsch 1-6 1-4 3, Dearmin 3-7 2-2 8, Latta 1-8 0-0 3, Regier 5-6 0-0 13, Roberson 0-0 0-2 0, Southard 1-1 0-0 2, Rodriguez 0-1 0-0 0, Gillium 2-2 1-3 5, Carwin 1-2 0-0 2. Totals 16-40 5-12 41.
NORTH TEXAS (9-3) -- Buckner 3-7 1-5 7, Smith 1-2 1-2 3, Bradley 3-8 0-0 6, Mims 1-4 2-2 4, Holmes 8-18 1-1 19, Goodhart 0-9 0-0 , Henderson 2-4 1-2 6, Poland 1-2 1-2 3, Shillow 0-2 0-0 0, Terrell 6-11 3-6 15. Totals 25-67 10-20 63.
Three-point goals -- OPSU 4-11 (Munsch 0-2, Dearmin 0-1, Latta 1-4, Regier 3-4) UNT 3-23 (Buckner 0-2, Smith 0-1, Bradley 0-2, Holmes 2-7, Goodhart 0-7, Henderson 1-1, Shillow 0-2, Terrell 0-1) Fouled out -- Roberson, Buckner Rebounds -- OPSU 32 (Gillium 5), UNT 41 (Holmes 13) Assists -- OPSU 6 (two tied, 2), UNT 9 (Smith 4) Total fouls -- OPSU 19, UNT 15. A -- 397.