With conference tournament hopes dwindling, men’s basketball tries to remain positive

With conference tournament hopes dwindling, men’s basketball tries to remain positive

With conference tournament hopes dwindling, men’s basketball tries to remain positive
February 07
20:08 2017

Two days before Christmas, the Mean Green men’s basketball team squared off with San Diego University at the Super Pit. North Texas was 6-5 entering the contest and appeared to have won the game on a last-second shot by senior guard J-Mychal Reese.

Reese drove the length of the floor with only a few seconds left and hit what appeared to be the game-winning shot.

It looked like a Christmas miracle – at first. But the referees were scrooges.

A charging foul underneath the basket nullified Reese’s bucket and ignited the worst slide the Mean Green have ever seen under head coach Tony Benford. Since that cold, fateful night, North Texas has lost 11 straight. The tailspin has North Texas sitting dead last in Conference USA with a 6-16 overall record, and a 0-10 mark in conference play.

With just eight games left in the season, the Mean Green are in dire danger of missing the conference tournament. Only the bottom two teams in C-USA will not make the trip to Birmingham — and right now, North Texas is one of them.

“I’m not even thinking about [missing the conference tournament],” Benford said. “As coaches, we voted for every team to go, but it was voted down. That’s for the student-athletes to experience. We’re not thinking about it. We’re going to take it one game at a time. We’re just trying to get better every day.”

For the seniors, missing the conference tournament would mean their basketball careers would end in Huntington, West Virginia, after a game at Marshall University. Senior guards Deckie Johnson, Keith Frazier and Reese will be graduating after this season.

For Frazier, it will mean the McDonald’s All-American will depart after just four appearances for the Mean Green. Benford declared him out for the rest of the season last week, citing sore knees.

“It would be heartbreaking,” sophomore center Rickey Brice Jr. said of missing the tournament. “We put so much hard work in during the summer. Our goal was not only to get to the tournament but win the tournament. I have faith we’ll make [it] and make North Texas proud.”

Despite a winless record in conference play, the Mean Green are clinging to the hope of participating in postseason basketball. North Texas has a pivotal Florida road trip this week, taking on Florida Atlantic University Thursday and Florida International University Saturday.

Both of those schools are just above the Mean Green in the standings. A loss against either of the Florida schools and the season could essentially be over.

FIU is the other cellar dweller in C-USA with a 1-9 conference record. Above FIU is the University Southern Mississippi University, with a 4-7 tally in conference, who Mean Green face off on Feb. 25.

North Texas faces three teams in the bottom five of C-USA in its final eight games — a series of must-win contests.

“These last couple games we’ve been playing hard and giving ourselves a chance, we just didn’t pull them out,” Reese said. “I feel like we’ve got a good chance [to make the tournament]. We need to stay together and keep working.”

In a season riddled with injuries, the Mean Green are near the bottom of almost every statistical category in conference play. North Texas ranks 11 out of 14 in scoring, averaging 66.5 points per game, and are one of only five Division I teams to not record a conference victory.

Junior forward and preseason all-conference selection Jeremy Combs has been sidelined for the season due to a lingering ankle injury. Johnson is battling a recurring hip injury and Brice recently injured his ankle but did return after missing just a handful of games.

The Mean Green have struggled in the second half of games this season, dropping seven of their last 11 after trailing by single digits or leading at halftime. Part of the reason is a 64.5 percent shooting percentage from the free-throw line, the second worst in C-USA.

Benford knows the injuries are no excuse, but cannot deny they have taken their toll.

“We thought Deckie would get 30 minutes, we thought Keith would get 30 minutes, we thought Jeremy would get 30 minutes,” Benford said. “It’s tough. You can’t control injuries. We changed the way we played during the season because of injuries.”

With so many missing faces, the freshman guard duo of Ryan Woolridge and A. J. Lawson has stepped up for Benford off the bench. In the loss against Rice University this past Saturday, Lawson and Woolridge accounted for 52 of the team’s 80 points.

As the season winds down, Benford knows if the team is going to capture that elusive conference win and ultimately make it to the tournament, it will require a total team effort.

After all, the motto around the team is it only takes one win.

“We feel really good about making a push,” Benford said. “Everybody needs to step up. We do believe we’ll win games. We need to keep working hard and stay positive.”

Featured Image: North Texas sophomore center Rickey Brice Jr, (23) shoots against Old Dominion University. Brice had 14 points and 4 rebounds after missing the last 4 games due to an ankle injury. Colin Mitchell

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Clay Massey

Clay Massey

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