By Nicole Reitz | @nicolereitz02
Sports Capital Journalism Program
INDIANAPOLIS – Within the necessary COVID-19 restrictions, Lucas Oil Stadium was filled with the noise of Purdue fans on Friday night. The Boilermakers were the only team to represent the state hosting the entire NCAA Tournament this year.
But that didn’t slow North Texas down for one second.
In their first tournament appearance since 2010, the No. 13-seed Mean Green upset No. 4 Purdue in overtime, 78-69.
“First things first, we have major respect for the way Purdue competes,” North Texas coach Grant McCasland said. “We fought back with a tremendous amount of heart in our locker room, even when we gave up the lead.”
Tied 61-61 at the start of overtime, the Mean Green (18-9) figured out how to take over the game through tough defense, holding the Boilermakers to 3-of-14 shooting.
Purdue (18-10) held the lead for just 2:14, and its largest lead was 3-0, 22 seconds into the game. Jaden Ivey led the Boilermakers with 26 points, with 15 in the second half on 6-of-8 shooting.
But in the overtime period, Ivey made just 1 of 8 shots.
Senior guard Javion Hamlet led the Mean Green with 24 points and 11 rebounds. “It feels great, but the job is not done yet,” Hamlet said. “We have been in hard fought games since I have been here and we never made it out. We knew we had to be the tougher team and that’s what we did tonight.”
Overtime has been nothing new for North Texas recently. The Mean Green earned their automatic bid into the tournament after beating Western Kentucky 61-57 in overtime in the final of the Air Force Reserve Conference USA Basketball Championships.
Not only was this the school’s first NCAA tournament game, it was the first win over a Big Ten opponent since Dec. 28, 1967 when North Texas defeated Northwestern 83-66 in Honolulu, Hawaii. Winning a game like this opens up new doors for a league like Conference USA.
“This means a lot for our league,” McCasland said.
Just five years ago North Texas was one of the worst programs in the country, winning only two conference games with no victories against teams in the top 200. There were five straight years of losing conference records and only one conference tournament game win in that span.
Now with a complete rebuild by McCasland, four players average in double figures, led by Hamlet with 15 points and 4.5 assists per game. James Reese averages 10.8 points, Thomas Bell with 10.3 points and Zachary Simmons with 10.3 point and 6.2 rebounds. The Mean Green are now one of the top defensive teams in the country, holding opponents to just 61.2 points per game.
Six players on the North Texas roster came straight from junior colleges. North Texas currently sits as the third-oldest playing team in the tournament, and the players take pride in being the underdogs.
“I don’t understand why everyone is so surprised,” Hamlet said. “We can play anyone in this country. We are the underdogs.”
Just to win one NCAA game was the goal for North Texas, but now the Mean Green have shifted their mindset and are eager for more.
“[The team] doesn’t want to celebrate,” McCasland said. “….They know there is more to win and I know the belief in that locker room is to win it all.”