FRISCO, TX — In the end, it was too much to overcome. “We felt like we were chasing the game from then on. Full credit to UAB, but I loved the fight our guys had.” said Grant McCasland. He meant, of course, the 22-2 deficit at the 10 minute mark for NT. There was plenty of time to make up that gap, but it would involve a lot of effort. NT gave that effort, but came up short.
NT finally found the rhythm of the game, got some buckets and forced enough missed shots to scrape and claw their way back to a 7 point deficit at the half. That wasn’t bad considering everything that happened. NT had been hovering at about 11% from the field for a long while, but slowly creeped back into it. Jordan Walker wanted some measure of revenge for losing out on Player of the Year, and he made a great case in scoring 32 points and terrorizing North Texas throughout. NT put Rubin Jones on him, the “best defender in the league” according to the FAU staffer next to me. Jones did his best fighting over and through screens and chasing Walker around. He had some help from his bigs — Ousmane and Sissoko did well in hedging hard and contesting Walker’s shots. It still wasn’t enough. Mac and Scott discussed after that letting Walker get his first good look to start the game might have let him get a rhythm. I don’t know about that. Walker can make buckets at any time and did in this game.
The rebounds were also a concern. “They out rebounded us” said Mac, and this was echoed by Scott and Kai Huntsberry as well. Was that because of mentality? Preparation? “They just out-rebounded us, I don’t know.” said Kai. Asked if UAB just played on the edge of what was allowable and made the refs make the call, Mac said “We know that the most aggressive team wins”
NT was getting hit, and pushed around, but they could not get a bucket to stop the onslaught. UAB scored 76 on the Mean Green, a team that had been locked in defensively. The rebound margin ended in UAB’s favor by a couple, and the second chance points were in UAB’s favor by seven. The real problem was that Walker went off for 32. His first half 21 was helped by fouls — including on made threes. He’s a tough guard, an elite scorer, and it showed.
Perry had just the 17, which is right on his season average and he was tasked with making his teammates better. “I don’t mind passing my teammates the ball. I have great teammates and I know they are going to make great decisions”. UAB trapped the pick and roll and then used zone pressure to get it out of the star man’s hands. Mac said “Tylor did a great job of making good reads and attacking.” Perry was able to attack Walker to get unstuck and make things happen during NT’s runs.
In the final minute, NT cut the lead from 8 to to 2, but couldn’t make it happen from there. They got steals, but Kai, Rubin missed looks they normally make. Perry had fouled out, but not before making his last three of the game, cutting it to 5.
UAB was the pre-season pick to run this league, while NT was expected to challenge but not win 26 games as they have. Mac said he is getting ready to “turn the page” as he didn’t have a post-game loss speech prepared. “I fully expected to be playing for a championship”. It’s this thinking that has his guys getting ready for the NIT or “maybe the NCAAs if they pick us” said Kai.
FAU plays UAB at 7:30 tomorrow night here at the Star. The Mean Green and other bubble teams will be rooting for FAU to win, keeping a tiny sliver of hope alive for a second bid. North Texas was certainly good enough all season but some early season missteps and late season losses to Rice and Charlotte may have sealed the fate. An NIT bid would be disappointing in context, but back-to-back NIT trips is an accomplishment that stands out in program history.
NT just finished up the best season in program history by a lot of measures. “These guys deserve to win a championship” and he wants to keep it going.