– by Adesina O. Koiki
A Lot of Sports Talk editor-in-chief
FRISCO, Texas — In getting off to a dream start in the biggest game of the season, the North Texas Mean Green secured their dream finish of being conference champions and earning the right to become a Cinderella during the NCAA Tournament.
The nightmare that occurred during the middle of those two points is now just a footnote.
Senior guard Javion Hamlet scored 20 points, including the tie-breaking go-ahead runner with 13.9 seconds remaining in overtime as North Texas won its fourth game in four days to become Conference USA Tournament champions, defeating top-seeded Western Kentucky 61-57 at the Ford Center in Frisco on Saturday evening. The Mean Green will be making their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2010.
Hamlet, who was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, started a Mean Green 7-0 to end regulation with a jumper in the paint with 2:30 left to cut Western’s lead to 48-43. A couple of possessions later, Zachary Simmons converted a layup before Hamlet assisted on a Mardrez McBride three-pointer with 22 seconds remaining to tie the game at 48 and send the game to an extra session.
In the overtime, Hamlet, who played all 45 minutes, scored six of his 20 points, including taking his defender one-on-one in the lane before uncorking a tear drop from the free-throw line that dropped through the twine to give the Mean Green the lead for good at 59-57. Teammate Thomas Bell blocked a layup attempt by Hilltoppers guard Taveion Hollingsworth before James Reese sank two clinching free throws to officially kick off celebrations.
Discussions about overtime seemed like a pipe dream after North Texas scored the game’s first 17 points, opening up a shocking lead against the team that has reached each of the past three conference championship games. Not only did the Mean Green hold the Hilltoppers — led by Conference USA Player of the Year and projected 2021 NBA first-round pick Charles Bassey — without a point for the game’s first six minutes, they shot 60 percent from the field (12-for-20) in the first half, including making five of seven from beyond the arc, to open up a 34-23 lead at intermission. Bassey was held to just two points and did not grab a single rebound in the opening half.
What followed after the break was a mix of Western Kentucky resilience and a complete brownout of North Texas’ offense, leading to the Hilltoppers going on a 13-0 run to take a 42-39 lead with 7:32 remaining after two Carson Williams free throws. Western’s lead grew to seven with just over two minutes to play as the Mean Green scored all of nine points in the second half’s first 19 minutes. Bassey also awoke from his slumber, putting up a double-double in the second half alone.
Though North Texas shot a horrid 6-for-31 from the field in the second half, quality ended up winning out over quantity as one-third of their makes — Simmons’ layup and McBride’s tying three — came in the final 52 seconds of regulation.
Bassey ended the game with 13 points and 11 rebounds before fouling out late in the overtime session. Western Kentucky lost the 2018 Conference USA title game to Marshall by one (66-67) before going down to Old Dominion by six (56-62) one year later. Because of their wins at Alabama and a neutral site triumph over Memphis, the Hilltoppers have legitimate hopes that their name will be called on Selection Sunday, even if that is unlikely at this point.
*Editor’s note: Above the byline is the photo gallery from Saturday night’s action, with all photos taken by Dallas-area photographer Ross James. After clicking on the first photo to enlarge the picture, make sure to press the left and right arrow buttons to scroll through the rest of the pictures. There are currently 28 pictures in total.