North Texas coach Grant McCasland never lost confidence in his team’s ability to score during a rough couple of games early in the season.
McCasland firmly believed his roster had plenty of talented offensive players even as the Mean Green stumbled through a three-game losing streak, a slide that left UNT averaging just 57.3 points per game.
One big run during the Mean Green’s 80-60 win over North Carolina A&T on Tuesday night at the Super Pit showed why that confidence wasn’t misplaced.
UNT trailed by as many as four early before Jahmiah Simmons converted a three-point play. James Reese followed with a 3 and UNT was off and running in its best offensive performance of the season.
“The game opened up for us in transition,” McCasland said. “We are learning about each other as we play. The ball still isn’t always moving like it needs to, but when it does, it’s obvious that our guys have what it takes to be good.”
The Mean Green’s win over the Aggies was a key step toward being that team. It couldn’t have come at a better time for UNT.
The Mean Green (2-3) not only snapped a three-game losing streak, they also picked up some momentum heading into their final two games in the Jamaica Classic. UNT’s game against N.C. A&T (1-4) was its second in the tournament, which will conclude with games against Rhode Island and 15th-ranked Utah State on Friday and Sunday.
UNT knew it needed to take a step forward heading into those games after dropping three straight.
“There was a sense of urgency to play with confidence,” UNT guard Abdul Mohamed said. “The coaches have been emphasized staying patience and swinging the ball side to side. We got good looks for great shooters.”
Those shooters finally got on track against the Aggies. Umoja Gibson led UNT with 20 points to lead four players who finished in double figures for the Mean Green.
James Reese and Javion Hamlet each added 13, while forward Deng Geu finished with 11. Ronald Jackson led the Aggies with 15.
“Coach Mac told us to push the ball in transition and not be timid,” Reese said. “We played free basketball and executed really well.”
Gibson hit four 3s, while Reese added three. Both had open looks because of the way UNT moved the ball and pushed the pace.
UNT played at a slower tempo in its last three games, largely because of the teams it faced in that stretch. The Mean Green didn’t want to get into a track meet with VCU or Arkansas, while EMU plays more of a halfcourt style.
McCasland said throughout the early stages of the season that UNT would play at a quicker pace later in the year when the matchups were favorable. The Mean Green’s win over the Aggies provided a glimpse of what could be coming the rest of the season.
McCasland credited Gibson and Hamlet with helping UNT settle into an optimal pace.
“They got the ball moving quicker,” McCasland said. “The quicker we made the first pass and initiated the offense, the better we were.”
UNT got off to a slow start and trailed by as many as four before the Mean Green went on their game-changing run.
Hamlet found Simmons in the paint to set up the three-point play that sparked UNT’s 10-0 run. The Mean Green built its lead to 32-20 at halftime and were able to turn their attention to their final two games in the Jamaica Classic a short time later.
UNT played in a tournament in Hawaii last season and won three straight. This year’s tropical trip will be a different challenge entirely. Rhode Island and Utah State are both higher-level teams than Humbolt State, Portland and Hawaii, the teams UNT played in the Rainbow Classic last year.
UNT held starting forward Zachary Simmons out in the second half against N.C. A&T due to an ankle injury but will have him back for the last two games in the tournament.
The Mean Green will need Simmons and all the confidence it can muster heading into two tough games.
“They don’t know what they are getting into,” McCasland said. “They are excited to get out of town and go to the beach. We have been clear that the reason we are going is to get two wins.”
North Texas 80, North Carolina A&T 60
NORTH CAROLINA A&T (1-4) – R. Jackson 4-7 7-8 15, Haygood 3-8 1-4 7, A. Jackson 1-3 1-2 4, Maye 4-9 0-1 8, Langley 3-6 2-3 8, Lyons 4-8 4-4 12, Filmore 0-1 0-0 0, Parker 1-3 0-0 2, Morrice 0-4 0-0 0, Scruggs 1-2 2-2 4, Maddox 0-0 0-0 0, Joyner 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 21-51 17-24 60.
NORTH TEXAS (2-3) – Geu 4-9 3-9 11, Z. Simmons 2-4 0-1 4, Reese 4-6 2-2 13, Gibson 6-11 4-4 20, Hamlet 4-4 4-4 13, Draper 1-2 0-1 3, Bell 0-3 0-0 0, Wise 0-1 0-0 0, J. Simmons 2-4 2-2 6, Mohammed 3-3 1-2 9, Murray 0-1 1-2 1. Totals 26-48 17-27 80.
Halftime – UNT 32-30. Three-point goals – NCA&T 1-6 (R. Jackson 0-1, A. Jackson 1-2, Langley 0-1, Lyons 0-1, Parker 0-1) UNT 11-21 (Geu 0-1, Reese 3-5, Gibson 4-7, Hamlet 1-1, Draper 1-2, Bell 0-2, Mohamed 2-2, Murray 0-1) Rebounds – NCA&T 30 (R. Jackson 8) UNT 31 (Geu 6) Assists – NCA&T 10 (Langley 5), UNT 10 (Gibson 4) Total fouls – NCA&T 22, UNT 19. A – 2,129.