After a loss against Rice on Saturday that snapped the team’s eight-game win streak, North Texas (15-9, 9-2 Conference USA) found a way to get back on track against Middle Tennessee (6-18, 2-8 C-USA) with a 75-70 win. It was the team’s first win at Murfreesboro, Tennessee, since 2009.
With the win, North Texas secured its best start in conference play in program history.
Middle Tennessee started out the game with a 4-3 lead before North Texas went on a 9-0 run due to a hot start by redshirt sophomore guard Umoja Gibson, who scored eight points in the first five minutes of play.
Gibson went cold the rest of the game scoring 10 points while missing his next eight shot attempts to go 3-of-11 from the field. He did contribute four assists to go along with three steals.
With 4:56 remaining in the first half, redshirt senior guard DJ Draper knocked down a 3-point attempt to give North Texas a 32-19 lead, its largest of the half. However, Middle Tennessee did not go away, as they ended the half on a 10-4 run.
Coming out of the half, the Blue Raiders would trim the deficit to five before a couple of turnovers caused North Texas to create some separation. But, Middle Tennessee crawled back again and kept things close as they were able to capitalize off of offensive rebounds and second-chance points.
The Blue Raiders finished the game outrebounding North Texas 39-28 despite being tied with 16 at the half.
“Middle Tennessee’s always a real physical team,” junior forward Zachary Simmons said. “Our coaches really emphasized blocking out, getting defensive rebounds in order to win the game. That’s what came through down the stretch was us getting those rebounds.
Junior guard James Reese knocked down two 3-pointers in the final nine minutes of play to extend the lead to 11 both times. Middle Tennessee went on a 15-2 run to tie the game at 63 with 3:31 remaining. The Blue Raiders were assisted on their run by senior guard Antonio Green, who hit three 3-pointers in that span. Green led the team with 18 points (all in the second half) off the bench.
“We made it difficult on ourselves, but give them credit because they didn’t go away,” head coach McCasland said. “They got a guy over there to get them going and Antonio Green did. They just completely changed the complexion of the game.”
Middle Tennessee was aided by a substitution foul committed by North Texas as they tried subbing junior forward Thomas Bell in for Simmons while the Blue Raiders were inbounding. This caused the Blue Raiders to shoot from the line and get possession.
“We just had a little miscommunication,” Simmons said. “We have to call it better on that and know to get off the floor quicker.”
Despite the late-game mistake, Bell provided energy in this game, recording seven points with a team-leading 11 rebounds.
With the Mean Green leading 66-64 with less than a minute remaining, redshirt junior guard Javion Hamlet waved off a screen and went with an isolation. Hamlet drove to the paint and scored on a layup attempt with a chance to go to the line for an additional free throw — giving North Texas a two-possession lead.
“[McCasland] was calling for a ball screen and I told him I didn’t need one,” Hamlet said. “I was just trying to go make a play for my teammates to win.”
The Memphis native returned to his home state to lead North Texas with 21 points which went along with 4 assists and no turnovers.
“It was great. My family and friends came out and supported me,” Hamlet said. “It was a great win and much-needed.”
The Blue Raiders tried to answer back with points of their own but couldn’t stop North Texas defensively as they pulled away late, claiming the victory.
It was a big second half for Reese as he scored 13 points, despite being scoreless in the opening half.
With Louisiana Tech’s loss on Feb. 6 as well, the Mean Green are in sole possession of first place in the C-USA standings.
UP NEXT: North Texas will stay on the road as they travel to face off with Alabama-Birmingham (14-10, 5-6 C-USA) Saturday at 1 p.m.
Featured Image: Redshirt junior Javion Hamlet dribbles down the court to set up a play for Mean Green teammates against UTEP on Jan. 25, 2020. Image by Zachary Thomas