- Tim MacMahon, ESPN Staff Writer
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HOT SPRINGS, Ark. -- North Texas coach Johnny Jones stressed the importance of "controlled passion" in his pregame speech before Tuesday night's Sun Belt tournament final.
Jones sensed the adrenaline pumping in his players as they sat in the Summit Arena locker room. His concern was that the emotions would result in a team that played too aggressively.
"We had to control our intensity," Jones said after the game.
After the buzzer? It was all-out exuberance. Heck, the coach was hollering and embracing his players in bear hugs after the Mean Green punched their NCAA tournament ticket with a 66-63 win over Troy.
The Mean Green, one of Division I's worst basketball programs at the beginning of the century, will be in the Big Dance for the second time in four seasons. They celebrated with a midcourt mosh pit as the confetti floated around the arena after their down-to-the-wire win.
UNT (24-8), which set a school record for victories in a season, had to wait two decades to return to the NCAA tournament after its initial appearance in 1988. It took only three years this time, and the Mean Green believe this can become routine.
"Next year we can be right back in this position," power forward George Odufuwa said after his 11-point, 17-rebound performance that he punctuated with a clutch block with seconds remaining. "We're on the rise."
Jones made a savvy strategical adjustment after Troy shot 55 percent from the floor in the first half, going to a 2-3 zone that prevented penetration and slashed the Trojans' shooting percentage almost in half. UNT dominated the rebounding battle by a 42-28 margin, shutting Troy out on second-chance points.
But poise is the primary reason the Mean Green are in this position again. Each of their three conference tournament wins were decided in the final minutes, beginning with their rally from a double-figure deficit in the quarterfinals against Louisiana-Monroe.
The final came down to the last minute after Troy made a late 10-2 run to tie the score. Never did any doubt creep into the UNT squad, a team Jones called as tight as any he's been around, which is quite a statement from a man who played for a Final Four team at LSU and was an assistant on another at his alma mater.
"As the championship team that we are, we were poised enough to get through that," said forward Eric Tramiel, the Mean Green's only senior starter and the tournament MVP after a 20-point, 10-rebound performance in the final.
Josh White, UNT's miniature point guard, embodied his team's cool resolve by penetrating Troy's matchup zone and sinking a pull-up jumper for the game-winning bucket with 24 seconds remaining. There was no hesitation from a kid who had missed eight of his previous 10 shots, many of which were swatted back in his face.
"I never lowered my head," White said. "I never lost any confidence."
And the Mean Green never lost their cool until it was time to celebrate.