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Recap: Strong first-half defense leads men’s basketball to a close win in conference-opener

Recap: Strong first-half defense leads men’s basketball to a close win in conference-opener

Recap: Strong first-half defense leads men’s basketball to a close win in conference-opener
January 09
01:12 2021

After its original conference-opening series against the University of Alabama-Birmingham was postponed due to COVID-19 issues within the Blazers’ program, on Friday night North Texas men’s basketball (5-4, 1-0 Conference USA) won its first game of C-USA play over Texas San Antonio (4-6, 0-3 C-USA) by a score of 77-70.

In defeating UTSA in San Antonio, North Texas handed the Roadrunners their first home loss of the season after they had won each of their first four contests at home. In fact, UTSA is well-known for succeeding on its home court, having gone 37-14 at home since the start of the 2017-18 season. Those 37 wins account for 68.5 percent of UTSA’s total wins during that time period. The victory was also North Texas’ first road win of the season.

“Any time you go to UT-San Antonio against that guard power and find a way to win, you’re thankful,” head coach Grant McCasland said. “They’re a super tough team to cover and try to defend at their place, and they were tonight.”

A key part of the victory for North Texas was a strong first half defensively. The Mean Green led by 10 points at halftime after holding UTSA to 28 points in the first half on 10-of-31 (32.3 percent) from the field.

Although the Roadrunners found their offensive footing after the break and scored 42 second-half points, the Mean Green were able to keep pace with them in scoring 39 points of their own and made key free throws down the stretch to seal the victory.

“You gotta play for 40 minutes to beat’em because they go on such runs,” McCasland said. “I thought we withstood their runs enough and found ways, when they got close, to kind of separate. It wasn’t great, but it was good enough to win.”

Throughout the game, North Texas was led by a balanced scoring effort as four players scored in double figures.

While senior guard Javion Hamlet tallied up 15 points along with six rebounds and five assists, he had a tough shooting night in going 4-of-13 from the field. Leading the team in scoring, however, was senior forward Thomas Bell, who finished with 17 points, five rebounds and three assists on the night and shot 7-of-9 from the field, including 3-of-4 on 3-pointers. Along with Bell’s efforts, both senior forward Zachary Simmons and junior guard Mardrez McBride had 13 points each.

While a cold shooting night from Hamlet was too much for the Mean Green to overcome against Loyola-Chicago last Saturday when he went 5-for-17, McCasland said it was the team’s balanced scoring effort that helped the team get back in the win column against UTSA.

“We’ve gotta [score] with a lot of different guys,” McCasland said. “I mean, we can’t step into games and just count on one guy […] you can be good with one guy leading you in scoring, but you can be great when you got multiple guys who can step up and score. On a night where Javion had some shots that maybe didn’t go down for him that normally do, a lot of guys stepped up.”

Despite his tough shooting night, Hamlet said he looked to contribute to the team’s success in whatever way he could when shots were not falling and praised his teammates for playing well.

“We got such a great team and, we’re just all trying to put it together,” Hamlet said. “Obviously, those guys picked me up, ’cause I haven’t been playing well at all. Just seeing them going kind of got me going, them believing in me. […] At the end of the day, it’s all about winning. It’s not about me. […] We’re just trying to do things that have never been done at UNT.”

One other key contributor for North Texas was redshirt-senior guard JJ Murray, who scored a season-high seven points and spent most of his 20 minutes guarding UTSA’s leading scorer in senior guard Jhivvan Jackson, who finished with a game-high 26 points. Murray made a key 3-pointer with 4:55 left in the second half to extend North Texas’ lead back to eight points after UTSA had cut the deficit to five, keeping the Roadrunners at arms-length during their high-scoring second half.

“I thought JJ made a huge contribution,” McCasland said. “He’s been in our program for three years, his first year, which was a redshirt year, he guarded Ryan Woolridge. And then, last year, he guarded Javion Hamlet in practice. So, he’s used to guarding really good players. And that’s why we felt comfortable with having him out there [guarding Jackson], we’ve seen him do it every day in practice for two years, now going on three.”

Up Next: The Mean Green will face off with UTSA again at 3 p.m. on Saturday for as they go for a sweep of the Roadrunners and a 2-0 start to C-USA play.

Featured Image: Senior guard Javion Hamlet drives towards the basket up against a Houston Baptist defender during a game on Dec. 17, 2020. Image by Zach Del Bello

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John Fields

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