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North Texas earns first NCAA bid since '88

LAFAYETTE, La. -- Shootaround was over Tuesday morning and
the bus was waiting, but Calvin Watson wasn't ready to leave the
court.

North Texas coach Johnny Jones wasn't about to make him, and
even encouraged him to test his range.

"I was just playing with him to make him relax a little bit and
said, 'back up, you can shoot it a little deeper than that,' and he
was already behind the 3-point line," Jones said. "I love to see
hard work pay off for people and I think that's what happened."

Watson hit six 3-pointers and scored 24 points to help North
Texas get to its first NCAA tournament since 1988 with an 83-75
victory over Arkansas State in the Sun Belt Conference tournament
championship on Tuesday night.

Watson, the Mean Green's season and career leader in 3-pointers,
had lost his range lately, going 4-for-23 on 3-point attempts in
his previous four games.

He rediscovered it at the right time, hitting his first five
against the Indians and finishing 6-of-7.

"I put in the work, so I knew my shot would eventually go
down," Watson said. "My teammates ... I looked them in the eyes
and I told them I was going to be ready for this game. I looked
coach in his eyes and I said, 'Coach, I'm ready.' So he called some
quick plays for me and I was able to knock down some shots.

"You get in a nice rhythm as a shooter and you never know what
might happen," Watson said. "You might go 6-for-7."

It made the difference for North Texas (23-10), which held only
slim leads most of the second half and missed 13 free throws.

"Everything they threw up went in. Give them credit for that,"
Arkansas State coach Dickey Nutt said. "They were more aggressive
than we were."

Isaac Wells led Arkansas State (18-15) with 21 points. However,
North Texas was able to disrupt Adrian Banks, who had 29 points in
the semifinals a night earlier but finished with 12 against the
Mean Green.

"They did play defense, I'll give them credit on that, but we
didn't execute our offense as well as we should have," Banks said.

Rich Young scored 15 points for North Texas, including a soaring
one-handed jam and an alley-oop dunk in the last six minutes.

He was one of the few reliable free throw shooters for the Mean
Green, going 7-of-8 from the line, 4-for-4 in the final minute.

Quincy Williams scored 12 for the Mean Green, while Ben Bell and
Keith Wooden each scored 11.

Shawn Morgan scored 14 for ASU and Ryan Wedel 11.

Arkansas State was as close as 72-70 after Wells' 3-pointer with
3:05 left.

Young's dunk followed, then Harold Stewart scored his only
basket of the game on a tip-in in a crowd and hit a free throw on
the Mean Green's next possession to make it 77-70.

Wells scored again inside to make it 77-72, but that was as
close as the Indians got as North Texas scored the next six points,
all on foul shots, while ASU missed four straight field goal
attempts, three of them from 3-point range.

North Texas started fast. Wooden scored seven quick points and
the Mean Green connected on its first seven shots in taking an
early 16-8 lead.

The lead was short-lived, however, as Jim Jones' 3-pointer
ignited a 17-6 run that included Banks' baseline fadeaway and
Wedel's 3-pointer, giving ASU a 25-22 lead.

From there, it was a tight first half with nine lead changes,
the last when Young hit a pair of free throws to give North Texas a
37-36 lead at halftime.

The Mean Green rarely trailed in the second half and never
seemed rattled, even though they were well aware Arkansas State had
beaten them twice during the regular season and that they were
trying to secure the first tournament berth for North Texas in
nearly two decades.

It had also been a long time since Johnny Jones had cut down a
net in celebration of a tournament crown, not since the early '80s
when he was a player and then an assistant coach under Dale Brown
at LSU.
"I'm excited our kids are going to be able to see something
that's very special, something nobody will ever be able to take
away from them," Jones said. "They'll be able to bring their kids
back years from now and be able to see that flag in the arena and
talk about that championship they were a part of."