The Mean Green won four game in four days to win the 2021 Conference USA Tournament. The final matchup was over a very good WKU team that featured Charles Bassey, NBA prospect. Javion Hamlet won Tournament MVP, scoring 20 points including a couple of huge buckets in overtime. Grant McCasland won his first conference tournament to go along with last year’s regular season win and NT will enter the NCAA Tournament: Pandemic Edition next week.
NT came into this game fearing a little bit of fatigue. The fourth game in four days for Hamlet meant he was going to be challenged. The rotation was shortened for this tournament and the spot minutes for Ousmane, and Robinson were going to be vital. The recipe for success we wrote this morning:
1. Javion Hamlet clutch buckets.
2. TB+company shooting with confidence.
3. Zach Simmons holding his own vs Bassey. Limit turnovers, limit frustration when Bassey throws a shot into the bleachers.
4. Defend the shooters. WKU’s Frampton, Hollingsworth, even Josh Anderson can all shoot if left open.
This all proved true, as Hamlet scored 6 huge buckets in overtime. Thomas Bell kept shooting despite clanking his first six three point attempts, but hit a big one late. Of course, Mardr3z McBride hit the most clutch three to tie the game.
North Texas scored the first 17 points to start the game, showing they came to play. WKU looked slow and sluggish while NT was flying all over the court. Thomas Bell attacked the rim and looked to dunk on Charles Bassey once (a fouled was called). There was enthusiasm but also great shooting. Hamlet hit two threes in the first five or so minutes after only shooting three total over the last two games.
James Reese hit a three, and Zach Simmons got two buckets over Bassey in the stretch. It was an amazing start to build a buffer against the inevitable WKU run. It came immediately and WKU scored 7 straight. The teams traded buckets before NT held on to an 11 point lead at half time 34-23.
The good news at that point was the obvious. The not-so-great was that NT was playing frantically, and blew about 7-10 points where they could have built a bigger lead. NT had shot 60% at half, while WKU was at 34%. Charles Bassey was 1 of 8, Javion Hamlet had 12 points.
The second half saw a complete reversal of roles. WKU came out strong and with anger. Charles Bassey continued to shoot long jumpers but found some rhythm after getting a couple of free throws. He scored 11 of 13 points for WKU and they finally got the lead from NT at 42-39.
By around the 11-minute mark North Texas looked gassed. Guys were slipping, passes were tipped, and shots were short or way off. Thomas Bell took the brunt of criticism, missing six threes over the span. From the 9:42 mark to the 4:42 mark he missed five of those six. NT kept grinding, running the offense, but nothing that was there over this tournament was working. The legs looked spent, and WKU was getting just a bit more confident.
The refs, which had been swayed by the pro-NT crowd and the aggression of North Texas had been ever-so-slightly leaning toward NT on the 50/50 calls. When WKU went on their runs, they got those. Bell fouled Josh Anderson on a three-point attempt and he made the deficit seven with 2:57 left.
Javion Hamlet got a bucket — his first points since the first half. Jordan Rawls missed a three, Hamlet aired a three and Josh Anderson caught it with a foot out of bounds. Hamlet tried to drive but turned it over in the lane. He was clearly not the player we saw the past three games at this point, struggling to get the lift on his jumper and struggling to get passes off.
After a foul, Dayvion McKnight missed the front end of a one-and-one, and then Zach Simmons got a huge bucket.
Hollingsworth travelled (great defense from NT there to force that) and that set up McBride’s absolutely clutch three point shot. All three of his shots were important vs Tech yesterday and this one here was his third of the game. NT was tied and just needed a stop and score. They got the stop, as Rawls missed Bassey on the pick and roll. Hamlet launched a half-court shot to try to win it but missed.
The game mirrored the last time these two played last year late in the regular season. In that one, Hollingsworth missed a clutch free throw set and Hamlet missed a potential game winner before winning in overtime.
After that it was overtime. After running on fumes, NT was seemingly rejuvenated by the comeback to tie. NT managed only 14 points in the entire second half — seven of those came in the final 2:30, including five in the last :52.
In overtime NT scored 13 points.
NT started down three, but Simmons (huge bucket over Bassey again!) and Hamlet put NT up. Bassey got a couple of free throws before Bell hit a gigantic contested three pointer. His seventh attempt saw him make his first of the game. Incredible.
The two teams traded buckets and free throws before Josh Anderson turned it over. Javion Hamlet was set up with under :30 to play and the potential lead in his hands. Buckets.
The classic Hamlet move to get the defender dancing and the floater in the lane put NT up two with :14 left in the game.
Thomas Bell blocked Taveion Hollingsworth’s final attempt and NT hit free throws with :2 left. CHAMPS
What It All Means
Javion Hamlet played the tournament of dreams. He came up clutch with big buckets when it mattered.
- vs Middle Tennessee – 21 points, 11 assists, 7 rebounds on 9 of 16 shooting
- vs ODU 15 points (12 in second half, including 8 in final 3:32) 7 assists 9 rebounds on 4 of 17
- vs Tech 18 points (14 in 2nd half) 5 assists, 6 rebounds on 7 of 16 shooting
- vs WKU 20 points (6 in OT) 5 assists, 4 rebounds, on 7 of 17 shooting
He is going to be in the NT hall of fame. He now has a regular season championship, a conference tournament title and the 19/20 Player of the Year award to add to the Tournament MVP for this year. That sure sounds like league hall of fame as well.
Grant McCasland was already well regarded and will be even more so going forward. He has multiple 20-win seasons to his name, and the aforementioned championships and a CIT title to boot.
North Texas is going dancing for the first time since 2010, and has a chance to make a little noise given the talent of this squad. NT played well against some of the big programs in the non-conference schedule and the fire they played with here is the kind of thing that turns a team around.
NT benefited from the Frisco location — something other league fans complain about a bit — and they will be missing that. The biggest motivator was probably the UAB losses. NT had split at Marshall — and Hamlet missed the game-winner in game two — but came out flat vs the Blazers at home in both games that would have secured a second seed at worst, or a top-seed at best. The losses looked to have put NT in a terrible position: having to win four in four days.
That they did is a credit to the players, the training staff, and the program. They looked gassed by the end and that WKU did not take full advantage was something they will rue, but that is the game. NT looked hesitant vs UAB and did not look like that vs WKU. They attacked and took the shots against both Tech and WKU even though they were not falling.
Drez McBride was absolutely incredible in this tournament. He shot 11 of 21 from three across four games and just about all of them were necessary, big time shots. None was as big as the game-tying shot here, but that final one would not have come if it were not for the others.
Thomas Bell took some heat for his poor offensive performance over this game and a bit against Tech, but it should be noted that he was drawing the toughest defensive assignments. Yesterday he had Isaiah Crawford, and in this one he guarded everyone from 2-5, including Bassey. He held his own and came up with the big block to win it in the end.
Zach Simmons was also great. He had five turnovers vs ODU, but only one in the last two games against Tech’s Lofton and WKU’s Bassey. Simmons held his own against the NBA prospect and showed his full array of skills: right and lefty hooks, one hand floaters, Mikan buckets, and solid defense.
NT tightened the rotation but got huge spot minutes from Abou Ousmane. He had 13 minutes vs ODU but only 3 in each of the last two games. They were big time minutes that let the starters rest and he was a plus performer in both. He got a dunk in this one.
JJ Murray had solid defensive minutes.
NT are champs and will learn their dancing partner tomorrow afternoon.