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UNT to open C-USA on Wednesday at Louisiana Tech

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Brett Vito, Staff Writer

Jalie Mitchell is fully aware of all the goals that are seemingly within reach as North Texas enters Conference USA play in her third season.   

UNT is well on its way to snapping a string of 11 straight losing seasons after running out to a 9-3 start. Exceeding expectations after being picked eighth out of 14 teams in the league's preseason coaches poll also seems possible.

The Mean Green will look to take another key step toward reaching those goals Wednesday when they open C-USA play with a 6:30 p.m. game at Louisiana Tech.

"I feel good about where we are at," Mitchell said. "We got back to where we needed to be heading into conference play in the second half of our last game. We want to start off with a bang."

The Mean Green have run out to their impressive start largely because of the way they have locked down on opponents defensively. UNT ranks third nationally with an average of 50.3 points allowed per game.

UNT took a bit of a step back late in the nonconference season when the Mean Green lost to Illinois-Chicago 70-67 and needed overtime to get past Eastern Illinois 63-61. Those struggles came to an end when UNT held Oklahoma Panhandle State to 12 points in the second half of a 63-41 win in its last outing Saturday.

Mitchell said that UNT needs to display the effort and toughness it showed during that stretch consistently in what she expects to be a tough C-USA season.

"It's a very competitive league every year, and this year won't be any different," Mitchell said. "There are a lot of teams and players that we have respect for. You never know who is going to be the player of the week. There is a lot of talent out there."

Mitchell named traditional powers Western  Kentucky and Middle Tennessee as two of the favorites heading into league play.

The Mean Green have shown signs they are capable of closing the gap on C-USA's elite teams while leaning on a mix of veterans and a few key newcomers. Junior Terriell Bradley leads UNT with an average of 16.8 points, while freshman Lauren Holmes has made a splash early while adding 11.9 points per game.

Holmes was named the C-USA freshman of the week Tuesday after scoring 19 points and grabbing 13 rebounds in UNT's win over Panhandle State.

"I feel good about where we are at," Holmes said. "We have worked hard every day dating back to last summer. If we keep working, we should finish like we want to. The ultimate goal is a championship."

Mitchell has emphasized improving on a game-to-game basis and will look for her team to take another step in the right direction against Louisiana Tech. The Lady Techsters (9-4) also have played well early and have won their last five games.

Three of Louisiana Tech's four losses have come against major-conference powers — Texas, Clemson and Auburn.

Alexus Malone and Kierra Anthony are both averaging 13.2 points to lead the Lady Techsters.

"We will be tested," Mitchell said. "That will be good for us. It will show us where we are."

If the Mean Green maintain the pace they are on, they could break through for a winning season.

"It's very important to finish over .500, not just for the team but for the program as a whole," Mitchell said. "It's in the back of my mind. If we can take it one game at a time, we will enjoy the success that we are looking for at the end of the year."

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