LAS VEGAS — The Mean Green were down in a semifinal. They had to grind out a win through toughness and belief and togetherness. They held Wisconsin to no points in the final 10 minutes and 13 points in the second half. Defense travels. The toughest team wins. It all was on display.
The immediate feeling for MGN, was that this was all familiar. Back in January, NT started slow against Middle Tennessee and had to lock down and shut down a good team to pull out a win. Aaron Scott had a big time, game-sealing block in that one, as well. The theme for all of the remaining C-USA teams has been that the league season prepared the squads for this postseason run. Here, we had the latest example.
Wisconsin came out shooting hot. Chucky Hepburn went 5 of 5 from three. He was flexing after hitting his fifth, and pushing the Badger lead to 11. North Texas had allowed a second three off an offensive rebound and then turned the ball over on an Aaron Scott foul. It was the kind of sequence that can break a team that is not mentally tough enough to withstand.
This ain’t a weak team. We noted on the show that the postseason means that every game is a battle between good opponents that are used to winning. We also know how cliché it can be to cite “toughness” and “doing the little things” as keys to winning but they are over-cited thoughts precisely because they are so simple in concept and difficult in execution. Staying “tall” and sprinting to close out a shooter when you are playing your 40th minute in your 37th game of the season is difficult to do, but easy to yell about.
Tylor Perry said about Kai Huntsberry’s work on Chucky Hepburn “can’t make shots if you can’t get them off”. Hepburn got loose early. He said “they just lost me. In the second half they stayed with me”. That’s Huntsberry’s work. Kai credited his teammates, and the rotations, and trust and belief. It is all so heat warming and lovable and amazing as the UNLV-painted-green band plays the NT fight song.
The Defense The Defense The Defense
Basketball is the kind of game where the offense always has the advantage. If you can shoot from 94 feet with success that will make you very hard to defend. Most people can’t and so the thrust of the scheming and planning is about managing percentages. Make that guy shoot instead of this guy. Make him shoot on this side instead of that side.North Texas did a lot of the kinds of things they always do, and that they did in the first half. The staff asked them to simply do it better, and fix small details here and there but it was the usual effort from the squad which has now won 30 games.
The final 49s was helped by Wisconsin getting cold feet. They had shot and missed a ton and it was clearly time for them to overthink. Aaron Scott blocked the hell out of Tyler Wahl. The rebound bounced out to half court. Klesmit dribbled the ball at four NT defenders scrambling to cover five Wisconsin guys. Hepburn, the guy who was so good early, was wide-ass open on the wing. If Badger coach Card did not call for timeout, I thought Wisconsin was going to get at least a game-tying attempt at the rim.
I was scared that the ball was going to be passed to Hepburn and with 5s left he was about to put up a potential game-winner with like a second to go. I mean I saw it in my mind’s eye. But no. The guy called for time.
The final play was well run and well-executed. Wahl said he probably made one pass to many, as he tried to shuffle it over to Crowl after just getting the ball from him a half-second earlier.
Here is where you credit our guys. Sissoko flew over and was ready to play defense. He did NOT jump wildly in the air looking for a spectacular block. If he does, then Wahl goes up and potentially gets a three-point play. It’s bad basketball. Instead he made Wahl work for another second.
Nothing easy! Having to think and make multiple good basketball plays is making it hard on the opposition. Bailing them out with a foul or a cheap effort is not good basketball. North Texas plays good basketball, folks. The pass went to Crowl. That pass was challenged — swipes, steal attempts, active hands, and other clichés, etc — and finally Sissoko dives on the ball with Scott. Win.
McCasland praised the effort. “So over that 40 minutes, it just felt like that last five was maybe our most active.”
“These two guys came up with big steals in the middle of the floor that led to layups, and Wisconsin doesn’t do that very often. I thought our physicality on the ball and our activity level, it was relentless”
He praised the final sequence in particular. “I thought the last play was just kind of awesome. I mean, we walled them up, made them make an extra pass; walled them up, made them make an extra pass; then we had two guys dive on a loose ball and the game is over. Man, just felt like that’s how our guys attacked the second half defensively.”
At halftime, rumored-new-NT-coach Ross Hodge said “Look, we win close games. That’s what we do.”
Kai was asked what specific scheme changes were made against Chucky Hepburn. Kai said, “TP kind of just yelled at me. He’s like, ‘Come on, Kai.'”
That Ball Is Slippery
I saw on twitter that people are complaining about the NCAA tournament Wilson balls. Some have said they are ‘too new’ or overinflated. Some support for the latter assertion, from Tylor Perry when asked about guys losing the ball:
“It’s hard. The ball is like super hard. But I can’t — you know, I can’t make any excuse at the end of games. You know, as a leader of this team and a point guard, I can’t have those mistakes at the end of games. I’ve got to be better because they could have made us pay, and y’all could be in here talking to Wisconsin right now. I can’t make an excuse. I just have to be better.”
The Meaning Of All This
North Texas looked like the road crowd with only section 103 mostly filled with Mean Greeners. The rest of each side (the end area was empty) had a ton of Wisconsin fans. They were the vast majority of purchasers it seemed. More people are trying to fly out today and tomorrow to get here in time for the game. Some people — shall not be named — were saying after the game “we need to go buy championship game tickets!” Maybe after this the collective group will be better planning this all out. Personally, I had bought the tickets back on March 14. I figured spending a week in Vegas watching basketball wasn’t the worst idea.
North Texas will play UAB in the final. The Blazers escaped Utah Valley University in the semifinal after overtime. Jelly Walker did not play well, but got some clutch free throws. I mean, that just screams “Big Game in the Final” and one reason why I did not want to face that squad.
Fortunately the two C-USA teams (only has happened four times ever, the last time in 2003, St. Johns over Georgetown but that was vacated) in the final means that the league will (at least) take two of the three post-season tournaments. CBI was won by Charlotte. NIT will be won. FAU is in the Final Four.
All of these teams getting so far together has allowed North Texas to take just a little bit of the FAU shine. It wasn’t ideal, but it may have been the best thing for the program longer term.
Items From My Game Notebook
Wisconsin was getting looks from drive-and-kick stuff, and had early hot shooting. They got into the lane and got some pull up jumpers. None of these things are usually very sustainable, not the way they’ve got them. Hepburn had two fadeaway corner threes go in.
NT running their sets but finding it hard to get open looks on the hard hedges right away. NT looked to get Rubin Jones running the point and to find Tylor Perry when Wisconsin hard-hedged the screens. It worked, as he had three open looks and made a couple before the 16minute mark.
At the 11:59 1H mark, UNT was scrambling a bit for offense. Wisconsin was flipping up shots (so much luck!), or getting fouled with and-1s. Perry had the 6 still. Huntsberry, who just stole a potential fast break outlet ball after an NT turnover and scored, has just the 2. Martinez has 1, and has had some good looks from three. He made on in the second half and all his shots were on-line just a little short. Mac would praise the defense for getting turnovers in transition because “Wisconsin never does that (turn the ball over)”.
At the 11 minute mark, NT 2/4 from three. Wisconsin was 3/4 and 7/10 overall. Lots of buckets from driving and hustle.
11-18 is the score. Wisconsin favor.
8:19 — 21-29 Wisconsin still winning
Hepburn hit another three off a rebound. McGee missed another (0-2) but another offensive rebound. Now Hepburn hits ANOTHER. The guy is 5-5 and feeling it. 21-32 is the score now.
This was when Hepburn was flexing and it was looking bleak. NT called time right after to yell at everyone.
3:05 — Tylor Perry making things happen. He had five points in this stretch to make it 29-38. NT got beat down the floor by Crowl once (not really Sissoko’s fault) and also Crowl had a nice turnaround. Kai added a jumper from the midrange too.
If there was some bad defense it was here. The guys bumped Sissoko a little bit and in-effect screened him. Crowl got an easy one. A bad omen, but it was ultimately not a big deal.
NT 4 of 12
UW 6 of 12 from three.
Just two extra threes from Wisconsin. Hot shooting subsiding.
HALF — 29-41
A three from Wisconsin. Hepburn missed a couple. Tylor Perry called for a kick out on a make. NT missed a FT (Stone) — played more up-tempo which is abnormal. Mostly hot shooting by Hepburn, lots of rebounds, and some misses.
UW shooting 48%
NT shooting 45%
I went to sit with the fans until the 5-minute mark and NT is now down just the two.
^^ you see? I made the comeback happen ;).