A rowdy green crowd, with a sprinkle of University of Texas at El Paso orange, decorated The Super Pit on Saturday evening in a back-and-forth game featuring 14 lead changes. The close game was nothing new for the Mean Green or their fans, but a Miner alley-oop with three seconds left gave UTEP (11-19, 6-12) a 68-66 win and a Conference USA tournament berth.
“We outrebounded them, assist-to-turnover was positive, we actually shot free throws decent in comparison to what we’ve done,” head coach Grant McCasland said. “It’s just our two-point field goal defense for the night wasn’t good enough.”
Win or lose, the Mean Green (15-16, 8-10) were bound for Frisco next week regardless and will make the short trip southeast for the 2018 C-USA tournament starting Wednesday.
However, their bid for the program’s first winning season since 2012 fell just shy.
Sophomore point guard Ryan Woolridge led the team with 17 points and drilled a pair of clutch second half 3-pointers, igniting the Mean Green faithful in the process. Woolridge also added six rebounds and four assists and constantly made plays to keep his team in the game throughout the second half.
“He made some huge plays,” McCasland said. “He had a tough go in the first half, he was physical around the rim and missed a few layups, but he kept fighting. Defensively, he was really good down the stretch, too. Unfortunately, they got around us on the ball screen at the very end.”
Fifteen of Wooldridge’s points came in the second half and his two 3-pointers accounted for half of the team’s total of four made on the night. After 12 makes from behind the arc on Thursday against the University of Texas at San Antonio, the Mean Green were outscored by nine from three in the loss.
North Texas went to the free throw line 23 times, making 16, in a game with 40 fouls called. Sophomore guard Roosevelt Smart did not have his best showing in the loss, but still scored 16 points with the help of 7-of-8 shooting at the free throw line.
Smart also grabbed six rebounds while fellow sophomore guard A.J. Lawson contributed 16 points and freshman forward Zachary Simmons collected eight points and eight rebounds before fouling out in the waning moments of regulation.
With the regular season officially concluded, the single elimination conference tournament awaits the Mean Green. North Texas will either be the seven or eight seed and if they secure the seven seed, it will be their best mark since they were the fifth seed in the 2012 Sun Belt Conference Tournament.
But the Mean Green head into the tournament having lost seven of their last eight.
“It’s probably going to be a close game, so we’ve got experience,” McCasland said. “This time of year, you’ve got to be able to hit the reset button. You got to decide that you’re not going to lose.”
Next up: the Conference USA tournament begins on Wednesday, Mar. 7 at The Star in Frisco, Texas. Opponent and time TBD.