North Texas has been crowned regular-season Conference USA champions after defeating Western Kentucky 78-72 in overtime. With the win, the Mean Green snap an 11 game losing streak to the Hilltoppers. They also earned an automatic bid in the NIT tournament.
The team was doused with confetti as they stormed the court with heavy cheers and capped it off by hoisting the championship trophy in front of the Mean Green fanbase.
“We’ve got the team that I felt could win one,” head coach Grant McCasland said. “We didn’t need to tell them the belief part because that’s why they’re here. They believed they were gonna win one, but it was more about how do we do it.”
The game started out with North Texas being down 10-4 early, but the team managed to crawl back causing both teams to endure a back and forth battle throughout the first half.
With 2:30 remaining in the first half and the game tied at 29, junior point guard Javion Hamlet took matters into his own hands, scoring and assisting on seven straight points to give North Texas a 36-31 halftime lead. Hamlet led all scorers going into the half with 14.
For North Texas, they wanted to avoid the mistakes from their previous game against the Hilltoppers. They managed to come back in the second half to beat the Mean Green by double digits.
Western Kentucky made things close in the second half, thanks to junior guard Taveion Hollingsworth, who led his team with 22 points and four steals in this game. They were also helped by turnovers, as they forced eight in the second half alone. North Texas finished this game committing 15 turnovers.
Due to Western Kentucky’s lack of size down low, North Texas was able to find several open looks at the rim. The Hilltoppers were outrebounded in this game 37-30.
North Texas got a lot of production from its frontcourt. Junior forward Zachary Simmons scored seven points while hauling in nine rebounds. Senior forward Deng Geu had nine points to go with five rebounds and two blocks. Junior forward Thomas Bell had a huge game off the bench, scoring 20 points to go with eight boards.
With Geu’s defensive presence around the rim and Bell’s scoring throughout the game, along with both having the ability to switch onto guards, McCasland resorted to using those two during the final stretch of the fourth quarter and throughout overtime.
After a steal and fastbreak dunk by junior forward Carson Williams, Western Kentucky grabbed hold of a 62-55 lead with less than five minutes remaining. To make matters worse, Hamlet had to play very carefully after picking up his fourth foul around the seven-minute mark.
In the final 4:31 of regulation, North Texas held its opponent scoreless while forcing three turnovers. Hamlet again lit up down the stretch but his biggest moment was driving to the lane and getting fouled with 2:13 left in the game. He knocked down both free throws to tie the game at 63.
Hamlet finished the game with 25 points and nine assists to go along with four rebounds.
After a steal by sophomore guard Umoja Gibson, North Texas had the chance to take the lead with less than a minute remaining. Hamlet drove to his right but lost the handle on the ball as it went out of bounds with 29 seconds left.
With no shot clock, Western Kentucky tried going for the last shot. Hollingsworth drove to the lane and lost the ball as he went up for the shot, but junior guard James Reese was called for the foul, sending him to the line for two.
Hollingsworth, who came into the game as one of the top free-throw shooters in the conference, missed both attempts. In the next possession, Hamlet drove down the court but wasn’t able to get the shot off in time, sending the game into overtime.
In overtime, North Texas shot 4-of-4 from the field and 7-of-7 from the free-throw line. The biggest sequence of the overtime period came from Hamlet, who threw lobs to Thomas Bell and James Reese on back-to-back possessions to give the team and fanbase enough energy to finish things out.
“As I came out the ball screen, they were trapping,” Hamlet said. “I was telling my bigs to slip so I can have the gap open, and Thomas and Reese was right there for the back door lobs so I just threw them.”
For Hamlet, he thought of this game as a huge step in the right direction, especially when looking at the team’s previous losses to Western Kentucky and Louisiana Tech, who both came back after being down at half.
“We just dug deep,” Hamlet said. “We just stayed together when times got hard and we trusted each other.”
This marks the Mean Green’s first regular season conference championship in 31 years.
“Western Kentucky’s a great team, but it’s only up from here,” Bell said. “We just got to play to the best of our capabilities and get better. We still had some mishaps in this game defensively and offensively turning the ball over. It’s a big win but we’re right back at it tomorrow, but we’ll celebrate this one tonight.”
Next Up: North Texas will play at Charlotte on Wednesday at 6 p.m. to close out the regular season before heading to the conference tournament in Frisco.
Featured Image: The Mean Green celebrate their Conference USA title win against Western Kentucky on March 1, 2020. Image by Zachary Thomas