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NIT Champions! North Texas 68 UAB 61

LAS VEGAS — Getting a little revenge. Bookending an era. Winning a championship. Celebrating the end of the best period of time in North Texas basketball — it was a busy and important night for the Mean Green. They beat UAB in the fourth meeting between the two (NT won the series 3-1) and won the NIT title for the first time in program history. The best team in North Texas history — by win total and probably at least a couple of other measures — will get a banner to hang and had nets cut to cut down, something Grant McCasland said this team “deserved.”

A good traveling crowd came out to support the squad, bolstered by a few last-minute flights and tickets bought in the day and a half after North Texas came all the way back vs Wisconsin. UNT President Neal Smastresk said it was the start of a “new tradition” for North Texas to regularly travel and support the basketball squad in the postseason and in the game next year. The weather moved the tailgate to inside the arena, but it didn’t stop a healthy contingent from gathering pre-game. The watch parties (I hear) were awesome. Everyone was ready for the big show.

This game was always about another chance at righting some wrongs. Tylor Perry was outplayed the last time NT hooped against UAB in Frisco at the C-USA tournament. He acknowledged Jordan Walker was a great player and had “shown up” for his squad and that Perry’s focus going forward was about improving in all the areas that would make his team better “whatever that is.” Between the lines and in the spaces between words the message was that Perry relished the opportunity to erase that moment from everyone’s mind. He got it.

Perry capped a glittering career in green-and-white with his signature move –dribble step-back three-pointer — and nailed it while guarded by last year’s player of the year and the closest thing to a rival Perry has. He celebrated with a courtside fan as section 103 erupted. I nearly stood up, My phone started blowing up. The moment was glorious. Perry’s shot wasn’t quite the game-winner, but it ended any hope for a comeback and put an all-timer of a highlight to cap his lengthy clip show.

North Texas was frustrated back in early March when UAB started that game with a 22-2 lead. McCasland said that they were out rebounded and were pressing early. Aaron Scott was upset that he “let the team down” by getting hit in the face and requiring stitches. McCasland had a look of resolve on his face. Perry said after the championship game that Grant had “walked in and said ‘We are playing in the NIT’.” They played this tournament knowing they “didn’t want to have that same feeling again.”

The entire team looked ready for the moment. Outside of that one slip vs UAB, North Texas is 8-1 since March 2 with five games being blow-outs wins. They beat two power-five teams in Oklahoma State and Wisconsin — the former on the road, the latter after holding that squad to no points over the last ten minutes. Grant McCasland built his program on toughness and attention to detail. Those were the things that carried this squad to a championship. North Texas was down two starts (Ousmane in New York with family, and Eady out with a broken wrist) and yet were able to overcome three squads with more size. Mac also built the program to the point where he could not get a quality game to challenge his team anymore. It took a tournament to force some big programs to face off against little ol’ NT and the Mean Green came out smelling like roses.

Before the year the coach said this was his best team. He was right. The 31-wins are a program record, and bested by only Houston and FAU. As of this morning, only nine programs have 30 or more wins this season.1

Tylor Perry had 20 points on 7/14 shooting in 37 minutes of hooping. The guy that had a sneaky — and maybe rightful claim — for player of the game was Kai Huntsberry. In a switch from the last game, North Texas put Huntsberry on Jelly Walker as the primary defender. Whereas a motivated Walker had scored 32 in Frisco, he managed a tough 21 tonight. Huntsberry sealed things by matching scoring with his own 21 points of effort on 7/18 shooting including 2/5 from three. Kai was running the offense late, as NT would work to get into post-up sets for him, and letting him make decisions.

Scott and Rubin Jones were crucial as dynamic defenders, guarding post-actions and cuts while chasing UAB’s big and athletic wings. Putting Kai on Walker allowed Rubin Jones to help battle for rebounds — he had just four but got his hands on plenty and sealed and boxed out others — against similar sized wings that bothered NT last time.

The three things that caused the loss were addressed in this one: rebounding, Jelly Walker, and getting Tylor Perry open.

UAB’s trapping 1-3-1 zone caused problems and slowed North Texas for stretches — particularly when UAB made an early second half run that Perry said “we knew was coming”. The staff tried a few variations to combat that — but the players were decisive enough to attack the spaces and create looks. They didn’t always fall — Perry showed his frustration with that after missing two that went in … and popped out in about a minute’s time. Perry, Scott, and Jones all had wide-open looks that they could not get to fall. Still, the offense was creating those opportunities, and while Walker and UAB were scoring, they were doing that with tremendous effort.

That’s basketball. You make it difficult for them, and you make it easy for yourself. Then you live with the outcome.

Eventually at the 6 minute mark, Perry got loose on a turnover. He and Kai Huntsberry were breaking in a two-on-one situation. Perry screamed “KAI!” as they broke, and Kai took a quick look at him before attacking the middle like they teach you in middle school. He got the defender to commit, and kicked it out to a sprinting Perry. TP catches the ball on the run, let’s a rhythm three fly while fading and brings the 103 section to rapture. NT led the rest of the way.

The scoring wasn’t all just the stars. Moulaye Sissoko found himself with the ball at the top of the key, wide open in the space UAB left after trapping aggressively. He turned, lined up the shot, and banked in a bucket to extend the lead to three with under-five to play.

UAB had chances but couldn’t make all of their free throws. Davis and Walker left three points at the line, when the lead was around 3. Overall UAB shot 24/31 on free throws. North Texas was just 10/11. NT out-rebounded UAB 36-30 and controlled the boards for long stretches. When UAB closed that gap, it was when they made their run.

The game was frenetic, and physical in the way you would expect from the fourth meeting of the season. No one was surprised by any action, and that familiarity led to 13 and 11 turnovers for UAB and UNT respectively.

In the end, North Texas made more buckets late than UAB did. Perry, Huntsberry were an incredible combination late in the season. They averaged a combined 33.6 points per game in the NIT tournament. They combined for 41 tonight. They controlled the pace, stretched the defense, protected the ball, and initiated the offense throughout. Everyone played off them, either getting open for kick-outs or getting put-backs on their misses.

Aaron Scott and Rubin Jones were their usual dynamic selves. Scott added 14 and displayed his entire game again. He got out for a couple of easy runouts thanks to either his own quick hands, or taking advantage of his teammate’s theft skills. He also broke out the dribble pull up, and a jump-stop-spin-back-righty hook that was huge. Rubin Jones had the pass of the night, wowing the crowd with the no-look on the break. He only had the early three — the first shot of the game — but was key defending, rebounding (4) and handing the ball on the break. \

Moulaye Sissoko played 33 minutes as the only big (Jayden Martinez played a stretch-five in the five-out look) and battled Trey Jemison and Javian Davis all night. Davis and Jemison combined for eight rebounds. Mou had nine. He and Scott do a lot of interior defense with just being big and active. Against Wisconsin that was clear — just flying over to disrupt the Badger big men without leaving their feet. In this game it was about keeping athletes from flying around and getting second chances.

In the end it was a classic North Texas game: win the game by playing tough defense and limiting the number of possessions until the other team is choked out and frustrated. All season North Texas would turn it on with about five minutes left and either let Perry (and occasionally Huntsberry) get hot and finish the game. That’s what we saw here. Perry got hot, cooked up some Jelly in a big moment — don’t forget his huge free-throw line two pointer on a second-chance look that put NT up six with under a minute remaining!

Afterward, there were hugs and tears and thanks and laughs. Former UNT AD and current WVU AD and NIT selection committee chair Wren Baker had tears in his eyes as he presented the trophy to the squad five years to the night that NT won the CBI Tournament that started all of this trophy-winning.

Since that night in 2018, NT has won two regular season titles, a C-USA tournament, won an NCAA tournament game for the first time in history, and made two NIT runs (6-1 overall), including this season’s NIT championship. Baker was as much a part of this rebirth as Grant McCasland. They embraced in a quick quiet moment. McCasland went around saying thanks to everyone — family, the cheer squad, the staff, the media. No one said it, but everyone knew it was a goodbye.

The transfers — Huntsberry, Sissoko, Martinez, and Tyree Eady (a guy playing with a broken wrist and added two one-handed rebounds and good defense in eight tough minutes) — all gathered for a moment with each other, hugged, and talked.

The squad called Abou Ousmane, so he could be a part of the celebration. Four players had to run to the locker room because they forgot their phones. Pictures were taken. Fun was had. Confetti was in the air. North Texas are NIT champions of 2023.

  1. For now. FAU can add more and SDSU can get 31+ if they win vs FAU and in the final. Miami has 29 wins and can get to 31 also.

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