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Women's basketball: UNT's remarkable run in C-USA tourney ends with loss to Western Kentucky

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Brett Vito, Staff Writer

North Texas' surprising run in the Conference USA women's basketball tournament came to an end at the hands of one of the league's longtime powers on Friday night.

Western Kentucky, the team everyone thought would be standing at the end of the conference tournament when the season started a few months ago, just had too much firepower too much experience for UNT to handle.

The second-seeded Hilltoppers survived an early run from UNT, the 11th seed, and went on to grab a 77-61 win at the Ford Center.

Western Kentucky will face UAB in Saturday's final with an NCAA tournament bid on the line.

It's a familiar position for the Hilltoppers, who made their 19th NCAA tournament appearance last season after winning the conference championship.

Jalie Mitchell set the goal of challenging Western Kentucky and the rest of the league's elite teams for their spots at the top of the C-USA heap when she took over the program three years ago.

The Mean Green's appearance in the C-USA semifinals was the latest sign she has made significant progress toward that goal. UNT (17-14) posted its first winning season in 12 years and won multiple games in a postseason tournament for the first time since 2002.

"We did take a big step," Mitchell said. "It's the most wins in 12 years for our program and the first winning season in a while. That is big time. It means that we are moving in the right direction. Every year we have won more and more. Every single player in that locker room is a player we brought in and believed in.

"We have the right people in place from staff to players. I am disappointed in the loss but am proud. It only goes up from here."

UNT just couldn't add a win against the Hilltoppers (23-8) to its list of accomplishments.

Western Kentucky entered the postseason as the top offensive team in C-USA, scoring 75.5 points per game. UNT was allowing 55.5 points per game to lead the league on defense.

The Hilltoppers won the battle of styles behind Tashia Brown and Ivy Brown, who finished with 25 and 21 points, respectively.

Terriell Bradley led UNT with 17 points while Lauren Holmes added 14.

UNT started out hot offensively and took a 19-13 lead early in the second quarter after Micayla Buckner scored in the paint.

The Mean Green slowed down Tashia Brown in the first half. Western Kentucky's leading scorer had only five points on 1-of-9 shooting from the field. She entered the game averaging 22.5 points per game.

The Hilltoppers compensated by getting on a roll from 3-point range. Western Kentucky hit three 3s in a 13-2 run in the second quarter and grabbed a 26-21 lead.

"In the first half we gave up some buckets that we didn't want to give up," Mitchell said.  "[Ivy] Brown and [Sidnee] Bopp hit some deep 3s. I could have lived without those."

UNT crawled back within one on a free throw from Adrianna Henderson, but Western Kentucky answered with the final four points of the half and led 33-28 at the break.

The Hilltoppers opened the second half on a 6-0 run and quickly opened up a double-digit lead after their key offensive weapons got on track.

Brown scored 20 points in the second half.

"Tashia was a little off rhythm," Western Kentucky coach Michelle Clark-Heard said. " She stayed the course and listens to everything that I tell her. When she hits one or two, she gets on a roll. That's what happened."

The Mean Green climbed within 58-51 late in the fourth quarter, but WKU's offensive firepower proved to be too much to overcome. Tashia Brown answered with a three-point play, and Ivy Brown added a pair of free throws.

UNT couldn't keep pace.

"We had some great opportunities with layups and free throws, but didn't finish at the rate we needed to," Mitchell said. "When we cut it to seven, it was our time to continue to make a move. We needed to extend that run, but they stepped up and made plays and free throws."

The key plays the Hilltoppers made late ended a historic season and memorable tournament for the Mean Green. UNT's run began with a win over Charlotte, the No. 6 seed, and continued with a win against No.  3 seed Louisiana Tech.

UNT made its run without having a senior on the roster and made an impression on several coaches along the way, including Clark-Heard.

" It was a dog fight," Clark-Heard said. "Hats off to North Texas. The tournament they played was unbelievable. Jalie is doing a phenomenal job at her alma mater."

UNT's coaches and players pointed to the final accomplishment in Mitchell's third season -- a three-game run in the C-USA tournament -- as a sign of what is to come.

"It was a successful season overall," Holmes said. "We didn't get the outcome we wanted, but wse proved ourselves. A lot of people didn't think we could get this far, but we knew that we could. It was a good start for us."

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

Western Kentucky 77, North Texas 61

NORTH TEXAS (17-14) - Buckner 2-3 0-0 4, Goodhart 2-10 2-2 7, Smith 0-4 0-0 0, Bradley 6-13 4-5 17, Mims 2-8 1-4 5, Henderson 2-5 1-2 6, Poland 0-0 0-0 0, Terrell 2-4 4-5 8, Holmes 4-11 4-4 14. Totals 20-58 16-22 61.

WESTERN KENTUCKY (23-8) - T. Brown 10-22 5-8 25, I. Brown 5-11 9-10 21, Elgedawy 2-10 0-0 4, Creech 3-4 2-2 8, Porter 2-4 0-0 4, Bopp 3-3 4-4 10, Givens 2-2 0-0 5, Tampa 0-1 0-0 0, Smith 0-2 0-0 0. Totals 26-59 20-24 77.

North Texas 14 14 12 21 -- 61
Western Kentucky 13 20 18 26 -- 77

Three-point goals - UNT 5-17 (Goodhart 1-6, Bradley 1-3, Mims 0-2, Henderson 1-2, Holmes 2-4) WKU 5-10 (I. Brown 2-4, Porter 0-1, Bopp 2-2, Givens 1-1, Smith 0-2) Fouled out - Elegedway, Porter Rebounds - UNT 42 (Terrell 10), WKU 34 (I. Brown 8) Assists - UNT 12 (Smith 5) WKU 14 (two tied, 3) Total fouls - UNT 23, WKU 25. A - NA.