Despite the game being a back and forth affair consisting of 15 lead changes, North Texas (16-9, 10-2 Conference USA) was able to pull away in the final minutes as they beat Alabama-Birmingham (14-11, 5-7 C-USA) 71-64.
With the win, the Mean Green were able to secure a spot in the top pod of the Conference USA Bonus Play, which begins in two weeks.
“It felt like a championship effort,” head coach Grant McCasland said. “We had a hard time guarding them in the first half but we put stops together … and that’s what good teams do. They get better and find a way as the game goes on.”
Several missed shots and turnovers caused North Texas to be down early, but the team was able to find some rhythm offensively and take a 21-17 lead. Alabama-Birmingham wouldn’t give up either as they followed with a 7-0 run to reclaim the lead.
After that, it was a back and forth battle between both teams. North Texas got some early production from its bench as senior guards DJ Draper and Roosevelt Smart, along with junior forward Thomas Bell, scored a combined 13 points in the first half. Bell also had made a one-handed alley-oop throwdown that gave the Mean Green some momentum as they went into the half with a 37-34 lead.
“Umoja [Gibson] made a great pass and I just tried to go make a play,” Bell said. “It always gives us a bonus when somebody can make a big play and it helped us defensively to get through the half.”
At the half, junior forward Zachary Simmons led the Mean Green with eight points. He was able to be effective in the paint and set up a lot of looks for his teammates along the perimeter as he had the team-high in assists with three.
Alabama-Birmingham found much of its first-half scoring through freshman guard Jalen Benjamin, who had 12 points. The Blazers finished the first half shooting 57 percent from the field.
In the second half, Bell was much more involved for the Mean Green due to Simmons getting in early foul trouble. Later in the second half, Simmons eventually fouled out of the game.
The 6-foot-6-inch forward made the most of the opportunity as he finished the game with 12 points and two blocks. He was also 2-for-2 from 3-point range.
“When one of our best bigs goes out with foul trouble, we just have to stay ready,” Bell said.
With less than six minutes remaining, North Texas leading by three, redshirt junior guard Javion Hamlet came through late by making consecutive baskets. Hamlet finished the game with 13 points but scored 10 in the second half alone. Redshirt sophomore guard Umoja Gibson also concluded the game with 13 points (4-for-9).
Alabama-Birmingham had a chance to trim the lead down one with three minutes remaining, but Bell recorded a block that was followed with a shot by Hamlet to extend the lead to three.
The Mean Green defense picked itself up in the second half, as they only allowed the Blazers to shoot 36 percent from the field.
After a pair of free throws by Gibson, with a score 65-60, Alabama-Birmingham answered back with junior guard Tyreek Scott-Grayson going to the line for two. Grayson made the first attempt but missed the second, thus causing it to still be a two-possession game.
On North Texas’ next possession, Hamlet missed the floater but was followed by an offensive rebound by graduate senior forward Deng Geu. It was Geu’s final and team-leading seventh rebound of the game.
Geu’s play forced the Blazers to foul on the ensuing possessions, which North Texas converted on to create separation and leave Bartow Arena with a win.
“We were losing games like this at the beginning of the year when we couldn’t finish it out,” Hamlet said. “Now we just come together as one and are just closing out games.”
Junior guard James Reese had 11 points while shooting 3-for-5 from beyond the arc. Reese has converted on three or more attempts from outside in the last five games for the Mean Green.
UP NEXT: North Texas will return home to face Charlotte (14-9, 8-4 C-USA) on Thursday at 7 p.m. Charlotte is fifth in the conference and is coming off a 91-84 win over Texas-San Antonio (11-14, 5-7 C-USA).
Featured Image: Junior Zachary Simmons finishes an alley-oop from Mean Green teammate Javion Hamlet against UTEP on Jan. 25, 2020. Image by Zachary Thomas
Article Originally Published by on North Texas Daily
Source: North Texas Daily