The North Texas (12-8, 6-1 Conference USA) men’s basketball team won their sixth straight game on Monday night against Rice (9-11, 1-6 C-USA) 79-59. The last time the Mean Green won six consecutive conference games was during the 2009-10 season when North Texas won the Sun Belt Conference and advanced to the NCAA Tournament.
When compared to North Texas’ recent games, this was their worst start defensively as they allowed easy looks that Rice capitalized on. North Texas allowed 36 first-half points, the most they’ve given up since opening conference play.
“Give Rice a lot of credit … the way they started the game,” head coach Grant McCasland said. “They forced tempo and were playing at a different pace than we were. It looked like we were chasing them … our defense wasn’t good enough … and it was to their credit.”
North Texas countered Rice’s scoring by feeding the ball inside to junior forward Zachary Simmons. He recorded 14 points while converting on all six of his shot attempts.
“It was a big emphasis,” Simmons said. “Mainly because they switched a lot of stuff … especially ball screens. So that’s a mismatch and guys were getting it to me and we played with some great space.”
Junior guard Javion Hamlet went on a run during the middle of the first half where he scored and assisted on 13 straight points for the Mean Green. He finished the first half with 12 points to go along with four assists as North Texas went into the locker room with an eight-point lead.
When the second half kicked off, redshirt sophomore Umoja Gibson got going early, knocking down two 3-pointers to start out the second half. This gave the team a 50-36 lead. The Mean Green also picked up their intensity on defense which led to 10 turnovers. One play that really sparked the team was a steal and fastbreak score by freshman guard Jalen Jackson.
“I thought Jalen’s deflection layup was huge,” McCasland said. “Momentum wise, we were playing against that 3-2 zone, and then we stalled out offensively and he just sparked us.”
North Texas was able to cruise the rest of the way as their lowest lead was 10 points in the second half. Hamlet continued his scoring run, recording an additional 12 points to put his total at a season-best 24 to end the night. He currently leads the conference in assists and has started being effective when it comes to his scoring, especially from the perimeter, as of late.
“Coming into the season, I had a big first half of a slump,” Hamlet said. “I just kept working, and my coaches and teammates kept believing in me.”
With the Mean Green’s 6-1 record in conference it marks the team’s best start to conference play since the 1988-89 season.
“We’re a really good team. This is probably one of the best teams I‘ve ever been a part of,” Simmons said. “We have a lot of good guys and a lot of talent, but it’s not about how you start … it’s how you finish. We’ve had some trouble with that the last two conference seasons. Just to be able to come in and finish it out is going to be big-time.”
North Texas lost last year’s matchup against Texas-San Antonio (9-10, 3-3 C-USA) 76-74 after a game-winning shot by then-sophomore guard Jhivvan Jackson. This could a big test for North Texas’ defense as they try to contain Jackson, who is second in the nation in scoring (25.8 points per game). The Roadrunners average 78.4 points per game, they’ll look to maintain that scoring average against a Mean Green defense that’s held opponents below 60 points in the past five games.
Before Thursday nights game, North Texas will honor the 2009-10 team which was led by former head coach Johnny Jones who won the Sun Belt Conference that year and reached the NCAA tournament. Student-athletes, support staff and coaches, including Jones will be recognized and honored at halftime. Prior to the game, the team will be located between gates A and B of the Super Pit and will be available to meet with fans.
Despite the team’s recent success, McCasland still thinks this team has a long way to go before being compared to past teams that had great success on the court.
“It’s a long conference journey and this is what we hoped to do, but this isn’t our goal,” McCasland said. “Our goal is to win the league and the only way you do that is to keep winning. The teams that have been here before us … that went to the NCAA tournament are on another level and are to be honored.”
Featured Image: Redshirt sophomore Umoja Gibson drives past Rice defender and finishes layup at the rim on Jan. 20, 2020. Image by Zachary Thomas