North Texas’ margin of error has dwindled pretty close to zero in the closing weeks of the season.
If the Mean Green want to avoid being one of only two teams in Conference USA to miss the league tournament, they need to start winning games in a hurry.
That’s what made a 77-71 overtime loss to UTEP on Thursday at the Super Pit so tough for the Mean Green.
UNT had plenty of chances to pull out what would have been a huge win and let them all slip away. The Mean Green (7-18) slid a little closer to the point of no return while falling to 1-12 in conference play.
UNT has lost 13 of its past 14 games after falling to the Miners, who are headed in the opposite direction after winning eight of their past 10.
“It’s tough,” UNT coach Tony Benford said. “We have to win games to get to the tournament. This was one I thought we could get if we executed and gave ourselves a chance. We played 40 minutes-plus and gave it everything we had. It’s difficult to lose like we lost tonight.”
Conference USA’s tournament will include 12 of the league’s 14 teams.
UNT is in last place and needs to catch Florida Atlantic. The Mean Green are three games back with five games left.
UNT appeared as if it was in position to pick up a win it really needed when it took a 60-55 lead on a J-Mychal Reese 3-pointer with 4:47 left in regulation. UTEP (10-15, 8-5 C-USA) came back with a 7-2 run capped by a Dominic Artis 3 that tied the game at 62.
Ryan Woolridge answered with a desperation 3 at the end of the shot clock on the ensuing possession.
The Mean Green needed a stop but couldn’t come up with one. UTEP got the ball to Paul Thomas, who scored in the paint and drew a foul from Derail Green before completing the three-point play.
UNT had two chances to score before the end of regulation, but Reese’s runner was off. UTEP’s Omega Harris missed a 3 from the corner, giving UNT one more shot. UNT worked the ball to A.J. Lawson, who missed a jumper with three seconds left.
The Mean Green have played the late stages of the season without several key veterans, including Jeremy Combs and Deckie Johnson, who have experience late in games.
“We are missing experience,” Benford said. “Our young guys are getting experience, but when you take our guys like Deckie and Jeremy especially, that puts a lot of pressure on guys.”
UTEP has a host of veteran players and turned to them in overtime. Thomas hit a pair of free throws to open the extra period before the senior Artis hit a 3 that was arguably the shot of the game and put the Miners up 70-65.
UNT couldn’t answer and struggled offensively in OT, when the Mean Green hit just two of five free throws. UTEP went up 72-66 on an Artis jumper before Woolridge raced up the court for a layup seven seconds later.
A Lawson steal and dunk pulled UNT within 72-70 with 48 seconds remaining. Trey Touchet missed the front end of a one-and-one opportunity with 30.0 seconds left, but Lawson missed the front end of another one-and-one with 16.6 seconds left.
Artis then made five of his six free throws in the final 13.9 seconds to put UNT away.
“It’s real tough,” Woolridge said. “You expect to win those games. We were not as aggressive in overtime as we were the whole game.”
UNT was in the game largely because of a good shooting night from the 3-point arc. The Mean Green went 11-for-31 from deep.
UNT’s Green was particularly effective while going 7-for-11 on his way to a career-high 21 points.
“I was trying to make the right plays at the right time,” Green said. “I felt like I was in the zone a little bit. I was taking what the other team gave me. I had a couple of good looks. They went in.”
Woolridge and Shane Temara each added 15 points while Lawson had 12 for the Mean Green.
UNT just didn’t have enough firepower to overcome UTEP and Thomas, who finished with a double-double of 23 points and 14 rebounds. Artis added 19 points and Harris 13.
UNT entered the night knowing it didn’t have a lot room for error late in the season. That room shrunk a little more after the Mean Green couldn’t pull through late.
“UTEP made the plays,” Benford said. “We had a bunny [easy shot] late to win the game in regulation that didn’t fall and didn’t make free throws.”
UNT is 0-6 at the Super Pit in C-USA play and 6-9 in Denton this season. … UTEP has won its last nine games against UNT.
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 and via Twitter at @brettvito.
UTEP 77, North Texas 71 (OT)
UTEP (10-15, 8-5) – Flaggert 1-4 0-0 3, Thomas 10-16 3-3 23, Willms 4-5 3-6 11, Harris 6-17 0-0 13, Artis 6-14 5-6 19, Touchet 3-6 0-1 8, Barrett 0-1 0-0 0, Jones 0-2 0-0 0. Totals 30-65 11-16 77.
NORTH TEXAS (7-18, 1-12) – Green 7-12 0-0 21, Temara 7-13 0-1 15, Woolridge 6-8 2-4 15, Lawson 4-16 3-5 12, Reese 2-9 1-2 6, Brown 1-7 0-0 2, Holston 0-0 0-0 0, Jackson 0-0 0-0 0, Brice Jr. 0-0 0-2 0. Totals 27-65 6-14 71.
Halftime – UNT 29-28. Regulation – 65-65. Three-point goals – UTEP 6-20 (Flaggert 1-4, Harris 1-6, Artis 2-5, Touchet 2-4, Barrett 0-1) UNT 11-31 (Green 7-11, Temara 1-6, Woolridge 1-1, Lawson 1-5, Reese 1-4, Brown 0-4) Fouled out – none. Rebounds – UTEP 40 (Thomas 14) UNT 42 (Woolridge 11). Assists – UTEP 14 (Thomas 4), UNT 16 (Woolridge 9). Total fouls – UTEP18, UNT 16. A – 2,672.