Saturday was a gloomy day in the Dallas/Ft. Worth Metroplex, as a constant, cold rain fell upon the area from around noon until late evening. It was perhaps fitting that North Texas' opponent as the Upper Level Low came through was the University of Louisiana-Lafayette.
It was Senior Day in Denton, and I wanted to make sure to get to the game in plenty of time to see the ceremony for the three players in their final home game. Driving in oft-sunny North Texas in the rain is always something of a chore, as drivers often err on the side of caution to an unnecessary degree. It's almost as if Brian Barnhart sent them out on slick tires. (Note: I expect about three people reading to understand that reference.) Despite the added minutes to the drive, I was able to arrive in plenty of time to see the three seniors honored.
Senior Day took on a different tone than it had a year prior. In 2011, Josh White, Tristan Thompson and George Odufuwa were all seniors and standouts on a team that won Sun Belt regular season and tournament titles in 2009-10. When they played their final home game against Denver that February night, it was the beginning of the end of perhaps the most successful era in UNT basketball history. 2012's seniors, Kedrick Hogans, Alonzo Edwards and Tyler Hall won't be known as all-time Mean Green greats, but each embodied the Mid-Majority spirit in their own way.
Hogans was a member of the freshman class that included White and Thompson, but battled knee and shoulder injuries throughout his career. He has sacrificed his body for the program, and will require another knee surgery after the season. If his body had cooperated with him, he could have been a perennial All-Sun Belt candidate. Edwards transferred from a Texas juco by way of Nebraska, and like Hogans, fought injuries to play for UNT. Hall is the walk-on and former human victory cigar who was cast into playing big minutes in conference play this year after highly touted freshmen Chris Jones and Jordan Williams were ruled ineligible in January. He has performed admirably in the last month and leaves everything on the floor. On a personal note, this home game was my last as a UNT student, as I'll obtain my Master's degree late this spring. If I'm still living in the area, I'll transition to being a paid-up season ticket holder. If not, Saturday might have been the last time I get to see North Texas Basketball at the Super Pit for a while.
The contest between the Mean Green and Ragin' Cajuns was a crucial one for conference tournament seeding. UNT came in with a conference mark of 8-5, while ULL was at 9-5. The winner would be nearly assured of a first-round bye at the tournament in Hot Springs, Ark., and stay in the hunt for the West division title, while the loser would be eliminated from the West race.
The game started off well enough for UNT, as the Mean Green had seven-point leads on three separate occasions in the first 12 minutes. From the start, it was clear that ULL would focus its defense on Tony Mitchell. The uber-talented freshman was aggressively double-teamed on every touch inside the 3-point line, which opened up opportunities for other UNT players to knock down good looks. Hall hit two #superhoops in the first half, but other players couldn't get shots to fall consistently.
Perhaps the turning point of the whole game came with five minutes left in the first half of a tie game when Mitchell picked up his second foul. Coach Johnny Jones has a no-exceptions policy of sitting key players for the remainder of the half if they pick up their second personal. If 1969 Lew Alcindor was playing for UNT, he too would be benched. After Mitchell sat, the UNT offense looked out of sorts, and the Mean Green were outscored 11-4 to end the first 20. When Mitchell came back to start the second half, the Mean Green still struggled at the offensive end. The Dallas product had one of his worst games of the season, with seven points on 3-of-8 shooting.
I'm convinced that some of the most aggravating games for fans are when their team is playing awfully, but ropes along the fans into the possibility that they can win. With ULL's poor offense (second-worst in Sun Belt play at 0.92 points per possession), UNT was never out of the game despite an effective field-goal percentage of 32.3 and shooting less than 50 percent from the line. ULL's largest lead was nine, two minutes into the second half. Remarkably, UNT made its second-half push with Mitchell on the bench with four fouls.
Even with the score tied, 44-44, about eight minutes left and the KenPom graph in UNT's favor, the game had that subjective, "we're not going to win this" feeling that's hard to quantify but every fan has probably been through. Indeed, UNT didn't. Down by three, 56-53, with 11 seconds left and the ball, Hall stepped out of bounds after receiving a dribble handoff from Alzee Williams. The atmosphere both inside and outside the Super Pit was forlorn.
The final chapter of the 2012 season is not written for UNT, but when it closes there will be more personnel questions than usual for a team that plays a lot of freshmen and newcomers with eligibility remaining. Mitchell is an NBA prospect and could leave school early. I've heard some in the athletic department say that Jones and Williams will definitely return, but they will obviously need to regain eligibility first if they stay at UNT. In the meantime, the big solace for UNT going into the final week of the regular season and the conference tournament is that every conference loss the Mean Green have suffered has been by one or two possessions.
On a brighter note, the crowd was excellent for Senior Day despite the rain, pushing the average attendance for the year over 4,000 for just the third time ever, and the first time since the late 1970s. I wanted for fans to keep showing up during conference play after the strong turnout for the LSU game, and they most certainly did against teams like Denver, Middle Tennessee and ULL.
LOUISIANA-LAFAYETTE 57, at NORTH TEXAS 53 02/18/2012
LOUISIANA-LAFAYETTE 16-13 (10-5) -- K. Coleby 2-3 6-14 10; R. Andrews 3-8 3-4 9; B. Mbamalu 2-5 1-2 5; D. McClellan 4-9 4-4 13; E. Payton 1-5 0-0 2; J. Brown 2-11 2-2 6; A. Thompson 3-9 1-2 8; J. Thomas 0-2 2-4 2; S. Farrington 0-0 2-2 2. Totals 17-52 21-34 57. NORTH TEXAS 15-12 (8-6) -- A. Williams 6-16 0-0 12; T. Hall 2-4 4-6 10; T. Mitchell 3-8 1-2 7; B. Walton 0-6 0-2 0; J. Holmen 3-8 2-4 9; K. Hogans 1-3 0-0 2; R. Franklin 1-7 0-2 2; N. Stojiljkovic 1-5 3-6 5; A. Edwards 2-6 1-2 6; T. Norris 0-2 0-0 0. Totals 19-65 11-24 53.
Three-point goals: ULL 2-18 (D. McClellan 1-6; R. Andrews 0-2; J. Brown 0-4; B. Mbamalu 0-1; J. Thomas 0-1; A. Thompson 1-4), NTEX 4-13 (A. Edwards 1-1; A. Williams 0-1; J. Holmen 1-2; T. Hall 2-3; T. Mitchell 0-2; T. Norris 0-1; B. Walton 0-3); Rebounds: ULL 45 (J. Thomas 10), NTEX 38 (J. Holmen 8); Assists: ULL 6 (E. Payton 4), NTEX 8 (A. Williams 3); Total Fouls -- ULL 23, NTEX 22; Fouled Out: ULL-J. Thomas; NTEX-A. Edwards.