DENTON – Acheil Tac spent a long Saturday afternoon battling, pushing, shoving and fighting for position against Southern Miss’s twin towers, 6-1 Shayla Wilson and 6-3 Caitlin Jenkins. But it was the Mean Green senior who had the last word.
Tac’s baby hook over Jenkins – who collided with a teammate and went down as North Texas worked to inbound the ball with four seconds left in a tie game – tantilizingly, agonizingly danced around the rim before dropping, lifting the Mean Green to a 57-55 victory on senior day at the Super Pit.
“The giant fell,” North Texas coach Jalie Mitchell said. “I’m just ecstatic that last shot came from a senior. I told Acheil, ‘If you have an opportunity, take it. Go strong and knock it down.’ ”
The Mean Green rallied from a five-point deficit in the fourth quarter, lead by Tac, who finished with 14 points, Kelsey Criner with a team-high 18 points and six steals, and Terra Ellison with 12 points and some big minutes defensively against the USM posts, who combined for 28 points, more than half of the Golden Eagle’s points.
“They went inside really hard on us,” Mitchell said. “Terra did a great job on post defense, which is not really her spot. We just had to help each other as the ball went inside.”
The win, in the final home game of 2015-16, is the 10th of the season for North Texas (10-16, 5-11 in Conference USA), doubling their total from a year ago.
“I’m really proud of my seniors,” Mitchell said.
The game was even at 41-41 going into the fourth period before USM opened a 49-44 lead with 4:51 to play. But a Criner three, a two from Tac, and a three and a two from Ellison put North Texas up 54-51 with 1:30 to play.
The NT lead was two with 17 seconds left when USM’s Keri Jewett-Giles drove the lane and banked in a game-tying shot with four seconds to play, setting up Tac’s final shot.
Tac’s game-winner finally fell with .4 seconds to play, and though USM (14-13, 7-9) got the ball inbounds, it could not get off a shot before the final horn.
North Texas survived an slow shooting start, hitting just one of its first seven field-goal attempts, when Candice Adams hit a pair of three-pointers to jump-start the Mean Green attack and erase an early 9-2 USM lead. A bucket by Ellison early in the second quarter put NT on top for the first time, and a three-point play by Criner and aggressive defense that created four steals fueled a 17-4 run and allowed the Mean Green to establish a six-point lead at 19-13.
After their rough start, North Texas shot 61 percent from the floor the rest of the half. Criner finished the half with eight points and five steals while Tac added eight points to keep North Texas in front at halftime, 28-25.
• Candice Adams’s two three-point field goals give her 44 for the season, good for 10th place all-time North Texas for threes in a single season. Adams is tied with Ashley Norris (1996-97) had 44. Within reach are ninth-place Laura McCoy(2011-12) with 46 and eighth-place Nicole Thomas (1998-99) with 47.
• Acheil Tac had five rebounds Saturday and now has 555 for her career. She needs four more rebounds to tie for 10th place all-time at North Texas. Tenth is currently held by Erika Bobo (2002-06) at 559. Ninth place is Diane Williams (1980-82) with 569.
• North Texas appeared to lose starting guard Kasiney Williams at the 7:50 mark of the final quarter when she went down with an leg injury and had to be carried off the court. Williams, however, returned with 3:49 to play and had an assist on a critical Terra Ellison basket with 1:30 remaining, then dribbled off half of the final 17 seconds of play, forcing USM to foul.
• This was North Texas’ first-ever win against USM. The Mean Green were 0-3 all-time versus the Golden Eagles previously.
• Saturday was also the final home game for long-time voice of Mean Green women’s basketball Steven Bartolotta. Bartolotta, a graduate of North Texas and a sports-information director at NT for 15 years, is taking a new job with the Arlington Police Department. His Mean Green career will end at the Conference USA tournament.
The women have two games left in the regular season, both on the road. North Texas faces Old Dominion on Thursday, March 3, at 7 p.m., then closes the regular season at Charlotte on Saturday, March 5.