For the last few years, North Texas Athletics has furnished a bus to the Sun Belt tournament in Hot Springs, Arkansas. Each day the Mean Green play in the conference tournament, a bus leaves that morning and comes back to Denton in the wee hours of the next calendar day.
In each of the previous years I've been at UNT, class and work schedules interfered with my ability to take the bus. This year, a more flexible grad school schedule and the foresight to take off the most substantive portion of Championship Fortnight enabled me to take the bus for UNT's first game in the Sun Belt tourney against Louisiana-Lafayette. In order to watch the Mean Green women play Florida Atlantic that afternoon, the bus embarked on the six-hour trip at around 8:30am, with every seat filled.
Early on in the ride, there was a healthy amount of tweeting with the athletic department's assigned hashtag for the trip, #MGHotSprings. I thought about tweeting this picture of students tweeting, but I was concerned it might lead to a possible Tweet-ception.
On the bus, I met Dennis, an older student who transferred from Arizona before the current school year. Even though he originally went to a school that commonly relies on an at-large bid to make the NCAAs, we were able to talk about how much the high stakes of conference tournament play in leagues like the Sun Belt meant to us.
The bus made a regularly scheduled pit stop at a Love's in Sulphur Springs, Texas to change drivers, but the first driver stalled the bus while taking the exit. The stall allowed the group to enjoy a truck stop, rekindling an old Mid-Majority tradition. Some truck stops are known to have college gear, but this Love's only had hats from above the Red Line.
The stop put us a couple of laps down, but we made them up in time to catch the tip of the women's game at Hot Springs Convention Center. While this isn't a site for women's basketball, the quarterfinal between UNT and FAU epitomized the This Game Will Hurt You nature of this time of year. The underdog Mean Green led by as much as 19 in the second half before falling to the Lady Owls on a contested layup with 1.8 seconds to go. The last-second shot was the only time North Texas trailed in the entire game. Things are nonetheless looking up for the women's program, as coach Karen Aston's first year resulted in a 10-win improvement on 2010-11.
After a dinner of a quarter-pounder and fries personally supplied to us by UNT AD Rick Villareal, it was time for the men's game against the Ragin' Cajuns.
For this season, I haven't been fond of ULL. On January 5, the Cajuns won with six players on the floor at Western Kentucky. Nearly a month later, ULL won on an extremely questionable foul call at the end of overtime against Denver. The Cajuns also spoiled UNT's Senior Day two weeks ago in a frustrating slog. My annoyance was heightened when a somewhat elderly woman wearing red and black threw Dennis' spare Mean Green shirt from the railing of the temporary rafters to floor level after some back-and-forth playful #smac.
From very early in the contest, it was clear that the Mean Green and Cajuns were engaged in a classic, high-intensity conference tournament game. Everything was contested and the teams were incredibly even. At the under-12 timeout in the first half, Dennis and I agreed that the game was absolutely coming down to the wire, as was the case in the two teams' previous meetings. What we didn't realize then is that the entire game would be played within a nine-point window.
UNT's Tony Mitchell, who was named Sun Belt Freshman of the Year earlier in the week, struggled mightily in the two regular season games against ULL. Mitchell wouldn't get his way on offense on Sunday, as the Cajuns threw the aggressive defense of Darshawn McLellan, Kadeem Coleby and Scottie Farrington on him at various points. Guards like Brandan Walton and Alzee Williams were required to pick up the scoring load, and UNT led by one at halftime after holding ULL scoreless for five minutes late in the half.
The way the Sun Belt sets up its conference tournament is a bit unique. Most conferences playing in one city host the four men's quarterfinals on one court with two games in the afternoon and two games at night. The fact that Summit Arena and Hot Springs Convention Center are under one big roof means that the women play the quarters in the afternoon and the men play at night, with games going on concurrently on two courts a few hundred feet from each other.
With a couple minutes left in the first half at the Convention Center (the smaller court where UNT and ULL played), an announcement came on with the score of the game between Arkansas State and Middle Tennessee. I couldn't hear the exact score, but I knew Arkansas State was listed first, meaning it was leading. A loss by top-seeded Middle Tennessee would blow the bracket up instantaneously and would give the winner of UNT-ULL a semifinal against an under-.500 team. At halftime, I made a beeline to Summit Arena. ASU by three. At the beer stand, I talked to an Arkansas State fan and told him I was rooting for his team. His spot-on response: "Oh, I think everyone is".
As the second half began, I felt my heart racing faster. This was the essence of March and elimination season. Every possession meant everything, every turnover magnified, every call dissected, every shot to be greeted with elation or despair. In person, I had only experienced something like this once, two years ago in Hot Springs. Despite not being able to catch the student bus with two midterms the day of that year's Sun Belt final, I made the drive from Denton to Hot Springs after finishing up the second test. There was no way I was missing my school potentially claim an NCAA Tournament bid in one of its greatest seasons ever. I still have a photographic memory of Josh White holding the ball at my end of the court in a tie game, driving, pulling up, swishing a jumper to win and the delirium that followed. As a quarterfinal, the game against ULL obviously didn't have the significance of a final, but there were moments that seemed as incredible. I definitely yelled as loudly as I did two years ago.
I'm not a big fan of boxing analogies, mainly because I'm not a boxing fan, but this was truly a game where every punch had a counterpunch. After guards Josh Brown and Elfrid Payton led the Cajuns on a 9-0 run early in the second half, Roger Franklin and roommate Mitchell answered. Each team offered a 7-0 run midway through the half. For nearly the last nine minutes of the game, neither team had a lead of more than three. There were enough big plays in the last 10 minutes to fill a book, with some of the best coming from Franklin, Walton, Williams, Brown, Farrington and McClelland. While Mitchell had his third subpar offensive game against the Cajuns, he completely changed the game with his ability to protect the paint. He finished with six blocks, tying a career-high.
It came down to the last possession, as it deserved to. There was no other way to decide such a fantastic game. After the last of Mitchell's blocks, UNT had the ball with about 40 seconds left in a 62-62 tie. Williams dribbled out much of the remaining time before eventually passing to Walton, who lined up a #superhoop. The shot hung in the air for a seemingly interminable period of time before glancing the rim and in. A sudden, glorious roar echoed in the Convention Center, as ULL called a timeout with five seconds left. When Brown's attempt to send the game into overtime at the buzzer clanged off the side of the rim, the celebration was on. There would be another day for UNT.
A few minutes after UNT's unforgettable, dramatic victory, I learned on the bus that Middle Tennessee had indeed been stunned by Arkansas State. An easier path to the Mean Green's third consecutive Sun Belt final had been opened up and I dared to dream about what could happen two nights later.
NORTH TEXAS 65, LOUISIANA-LAFAYETTE 62 03/04/2012
NORTH TEXAS 17-13 (9-7) -- A. Williams 6-14 2-2 14; T. Mitchell 2-6 1-1 5; B. Walton 5-10 3-3 16; J. Holmen 4-9 2-2 10; R. Franklin 4-10 2-3 10; T. Hall 1-2 0-0 3; K. Hogans 1-3 1-2 3; T. Norris 0-3 0-0 0; N. Stojiljkovic 2-3 0-0 4; A. Edwards 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 25-60 11-13 65. LOUISIANA-LAFAYETTE 16-15 (10-6) -- D. McClellan 3-8 3-3 10; E. Payton 6-12 1-3 13; J. Brown 6-13 1-2 14; K. Coleby 3-5 1-1 7; B. Mbamalu 4-11 2-2 11; A. Thompson 0-3 0-0 0; D. Jackson 0-3 1-2 1; S. Farrington 1-1 1-1 3; D. Perez 1-3 0-0 3; K. Smith 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 24-59 10-14 62.
Three-point goals: NTEX 4-7 (J. Holmen 0-1; T. Hall 1-1; B. Walton 3-5), ULL 4-19 (D. McClellan 1-4; D. Perez 1-3; J. Brown 1-6; B. Mbamalu 1-4; D. Jackson 0-1; A. Thompson 0-1); Rebounds: NTEX 37 (T. Mitchell 11), ULL 33 (E. Payton 8); Assists: NTEX 7 (A. Williams 2), ULL 10 (E. Payton 9); Total Fouls -- NTEX 13, ULL 16; Fouled Out: NTEX-None; ULL-None.