North Texas never anticipated needing a clutch play or two late in a season opener against Northwood on Friday that seemed like it was set up to be a confidence-building blowout.
That is exactly the position the Mean Green found itself in late against the Knights, an NAIA program in just its second year.
Fortunately for UNT, Alzee Williams delivered.
The senior guard made a series of huge plays down the stretch, none bigger than taking a feed from Vertrail Vaughns and converting a three-point play with six seconds left to send UNT to a 72-67 win that was way too close for comfort at the Super Pit.
UNT was locked in a close battle with the Knights all night and had to hold its collective breath when Jon Sulak missed a potential game-tying 3-pointer in the closing seconds. Vaughns ended up with the ball and fed it to Williams, who converted the conventional three-point play to give UNT a 70-64 lead.
“We are really disappointed in our effort and execution,” UNT coach Tony Benford said. “I want to give [Northwood coach Ray] Wilkerson credit. When we put our schedule together, we knew his team was going to be well coached. We didn’t execute offensively or attack the zone. We are a better-shooting team than that.”
Benford said that his players could have been looking forward to a game Monday at Oklahoma. They will look forward to it a lot more now that they avoided what would have been a huge upset.
Northwood (1-1) opened the season with a win over Open Bible College and finished 4-22 last year.
Williams led UNT with 22 points, while Chris Jones and Brandan Walton each added 13 points.
Chase Franklin led Northwood with 19 points.
Walton was playing his first game in a year after breaking his foot in the opening game of last season.
That injury was one reason UNT’s first season under Benford didn’t go as expected. UNT is hoping this year will unfold in an entirely different manner, especially once it gets its full complement of players back.
Marquette transfer T.J. Taylor is still nursing a sore knee that could keep him out of Monday’s game at Oklahoma. Colin Voss missed three weeks of practice before being thrown in against Northwood. Kelvin Gaines, who is expected to be a key frontcourt addition after transferring from Cincinnati, was out with a stress fracture in his foot.
“We know what we have to work and improve on,” Jones said. “I don’t want to make that excuse, but it is still early.”
Gaining a little confidence early certainly won’t hurt UNT’s development. That’s exactly what the Mean Green gained after hanging on late.
The Mean Green was up 67-64 after Voss hit a pair of free throws with 25.6 seconds remaining. UNT took a timeout to set up its defense, but Northwood managed to work the ball to Sulak, who missed from the wing.
That seemed like it would be all the drama left, but Franklin hit a 3 with three seconds left to cut the Mean Green’s lead to 70-67. The Knights would get no closer.
Nothwood was forced to foul and sent Williams to the line, where he hit two free throws to ice the game.
“Alzee did a good job attacking,” Benford said. “He was really our only guy who didn’t settle for shooting 3s. He got into the lane and tried to make some things happen.”
UNT needed someone to do just that in a game that was close throughout. The Mean Green led 35-33 at the end of a surprisingly tight first half.
The Mean Green maintained a narrow edge before Northwood used a 10-2 run capped by a three-point play from Franklin that gave the Knights their first lead at 26-25.
The game remained tight and was tied at 30 before Jones hit a layup following a Walton steal.
The Mean Green answered with a 5-0 run before Northwood’s B.J. Dale hit a layup to get the Knights within two at halftime.
Northwood backed into a 2-3 zone all night and limited the Mean Green, which shot just 3-for-17 from 3-point range.
UNT couldn’t crack the zone most of the night. Thanks to a couple of big plays from Williams, it didn’t matter.
“Coach told me that we needed paint touches,” Williams said. “He didn’t want us to settle for jump shots, and [instead] get to the basket. That is what I tried to do.”
UNT avoided an upset but couldn’t help but be upset with the way it played.
“We are a better team than we showed tonight,” Benford said. “That is a game last year we probably would have lost. We showed a lot of toughness to hold on and win.”
North Texas 72, Northwood 67
NORHWOOD (1-1) – Pleasant 1-6 3-4 5, Massenburger 2-8 3-6 7, Dale 6-16 3-5 15, Southworth 1-4 1-2 4, Jones 1-4 0-0 2, Franklin 6-11 4-5 19, Bagsby 0-3 0-0 0, Fisher 3-3 5-6 11, Sulak 1-4 0-0 3, Mumphrey 0-1 0-0 0, Johnson 0-1 1-2 1, Lockett 0-0 0-0 0. Total 21-61 20-30 67.
NORTH TEXAS (1-0) – Flannigan 1-1 1-7 3, Coleman 0-2 1-2 1, A. Williams 9-15 4-5 22, Jones 5-10 3-4 13, J. Williams 4-11 1-1 9, Vaughns 1-6 1-2 4, Aniefiok 1-6 2-2 5, Walton 4-12 4-6 13, Voss 0-5 2-2 2. Totals 25-68 19-31 72.
Halftime – UNT 35-33. 3-point goals – Northwood 5-19 (Massenburger 0-2, Dale 0-5, Southworth 1-2, Franklin 3-6, Bagsby 0-1, Sulak 1-3), UNT 3-17 (Jones 0-1, J. Williams 0-3, Vaughns 1-3, Aniefiok 1-5, Walton 1-5). Fouled out – Massenburger. Rebounds – Northwood 40 (Massenburger 7), UNT 57 (J. Williams 9). Assists – Northwood 6 (Dale, Johnson 2), UNT 10 (Jones 4). Total fouls – Northwood 27, UNT 23. A –2,236.