FRISCO — North Texas will have to wait at least one more year for the postseason win that has seemed just out of reach for the last several seasons.
Louisiana Tech made sure of that Wednesday night by taking down the Mean Green 68-62 in the opening round of the Conference USA tournament at the Ford Center.
UNT was nipping at Louisiana Tech's heels most of the night before the Bulldogs used one key burst in the second half and a whole lot of clutch free throws down the stretch to hang on for the upset win. UNT was the No. 7 seed in the tournament. Louisiana Tech was No. 10.
The game was tied at 39 midway through the second half when DeQuan Bracey hit a layup. Jacobi Boykins followed with a 3 that gave the Bulldogs a five-point lead.
Louisiana Tech (17-15) did just enough down the stretch to hang on to that advantage and advanced to the second round to face Old Dominion at 8:30 p.m. Thursday.
"Every time in the second half we looked to make a run they made a big three," UNT coach Grant McCasland said.
That was what was so disappointing for the Mean Green, who couldn't capitalize on one final chance to pull out of a late-season slide and reach a program milestone.
UNT (15-17) entered the day hoping to record the program's first postseason win in four years, but it fell short in the final game of McCasland's first season with the Mean Green.
McCasland took over a program that had won just eight games in Tony Benford's final campaign with the Mean Green last year and made dramatic strides before struggling down the stretch.
UNT lost seven of its last eight games.
McCasland emphasized to his players that they have made significant progress and have potential to make another significant jump next year.
"If we let a day go by without getting better then we have made a huge mistake because we have unlimited potential," McCasland said. "I love the way these guys compete and the way they learned what it takes to compete for championships."
The Mean Green appeared as if they might break though when they led by as many as seven in the first half. UNT was in striking distance much of the second half but could never get over the hump, despite big games from both Roosevelt Smart and Ryan Woolridge. UNT's starting guards each scored 20 points.
A.J. Lawson, UNT's third starting guard, finished with 11 points.
UNT just didn't have enough firepower to get past a Louisiana Tech team that also got a big performance from its backcourt.
Jacobi Boykins led the Bulldogs with 21 points and Derric Jean added 17.
"They spread the floor," Woolridge said. "They can shoot the ball and drive. You don't know what to play them for. They were hitting threes and we couldn't stop them."
That was especially true down the stretch when Louisiana Tech made all the key plays after UNT climbed to within 53-50 on a pair of free throws from Smart with 4:18 left.
Boykins answered with two free throws of his own. Amorie Archibald tacked on a 3 with 1:47 left. That shot put the Bulldogs up 58-50, essentially put UNT away and erased the memories of a good start for the Mean Green.
UNT led 17-10 in the early going, thanks to some hot shooting from deep. Smart hit two early 3s and DJ Draper added another before Louisiana Tech responded.
The Bulldogs went on an 8-0 run late in the first half behind Jean.
Jean drew an offensive foul on Draper that officials ruled was flagrant. Jean hit both free throws and scored on the ensuing possession when the Bulldogs got the ball back.
Exavian Christon then hit two key shots in the closing seconds for Louisiana Tech — a 3 and a jumper to give the Bulldogs a 31-27 lead at the break.
UNT never pushed back ahead and was left still looking for its first postseason win since the 2013-14 season.
UNT hired McCasland in the hope that he could quickly rebuild a program that has not posted a winning season since Johnny Jones left for LSU after the 2011-12 campaign.
The Mean Green were threatening to break that streak late in the season after starting 14-10, but won just one more game the rest of the way in a season it dealt with a series of injuries in addition to being forced to adjust to a new staff.
UNT lost freshman guard Umoja Gibson to a broken leg early in the season, while junior college transfer guard Jorden Duffy battled a variety of injuries throughout the year. UNT will get both back next year and will also have forward Mark Tikhonenko available.
The Russian native sat out this season and will be eligible next year.
UNT loses only one key player in senior forward Shane Temara.
"I am proud of this group," McCasland said. They set the foundation for what we are going to do in the future."
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 and via Twitter at @brettvito.
FEATURED PHOTO: North Texas coach Grant McCasland paces the sideline during the Mean Green's loss to Louisiana Tech at the Ford Center on Wednesday in Frisco, (Jeff Woo/DRC)
Louisiana Tech 68, North Texas 62
LOUISIANA TECH (17-15) -- Boykins 6-13 7-7 21, Jean 3-6 9-13 17, Archibald 3-6 2-2 9, Duruji 0-3 2-2 2, Powell 2-5 0-0 4, Bracey 2-4 0-2 4, Pemberton 1-2 0-0 2, Christon 3-5 0-0 7, Washington 1-1 0-0 2. Totals 21-45 20-26 68.
NORTH TEXAS (15-17) -- Woolridge 10-16 0-3 20, Lawson 5-11 1-2 11, Smart 6-19 6-8 20, Holston 0-0 0-0 0, Simmons 1-5 1-2 3, Duffy 0-0 0-0 0, Arikawe 0-0 2-2 2, Miller 0-0 0-0 0, Temara 0-1 0-0 0, Draper 2-4 0-0 6. Totals 24-56 10-17 62.
Halftime -- Louisiana Tech 31-27 Three-point goals -- Louisiana Tech 6-18 (Boykins 2-6, Jean 2-2, Archibald 1-2, Duruiji 0-2, Bracey 0-2, Pemberton 0-1, Christon 1-3) UNT 4-14 (Smart 2-9, Temara 0-1, Draper 2-4) Rebounds -- Louisiana Tech 31 (Powell 8), UNT 33 (Simmons 8) Assists -- Louisiana Tech 14 (Jean 5), UNT 9 (Woolridge 9) Total fouls -- Louisiana Tech 20, UNT 23. A -- NA.