Despite a close start, the Loyola men’s basketball (7-2, 2-0) team defeated the University of North Texas 57-49 Jan. 2. The biggest lead of the game didn’t come until there were only five minutes in the game and Loyola was up 15 points, securing its win against the Mean Green.
After Loyola’s series with Bradley University was cancelled due to a positive COVID-19 test within its personnel, the Ramblers added this extra non-conference against North Texas Dec. 31. This is the first time Loyola and North Texas have ever matched up.
The combination of good defense and low shooting percentages from both teams were the reason for the close first half. Both teams couldn’t seem to find much success at any spot in the court — Loyola shot at a 36 percent while North Texas had a 34.8 percent.
Loyola led up until 12:31 in the first half when North Texas’s senior forward Thomas Bell hit a jumper. It was after their 8-1 run that the Mean Green took their only lead of the game. Loyola took control when a series of Ramblers found success shooting, earning Loyola a 19-17 lead with only five minutes left in the half.
With redshirt senior forward Aher Uguak’s leading the team with 10 points, Loyola headed into the locker room for halftime leading 22-19.
The energy kicked up a notch as the Ramblers began to increase their lead in the second half. Loyola was capitalizing on North Texas’s turnovers. Loyola scored 17 points off the Mean Green’s 20 turnovers.
“Defense creates offense,” Loyola head coach Porter Moser said after the game.“We were one of the top teams in the country in forcing turnovers last year. It’s something we’ve been doing for a couple years. I thought we were really active.”
Many Ramblers found success, but it was a three-pointer from redshirt sophomore Cooper Kaifes that was the turning point for the game. Following Kaifes’ three, Uguak would go on to score nine more points in the next five minutes.
A pass from sophomore guard Marquise Kennedy allowed Uguak to slam down a dunk with a little less than six minutes in the game. Uguak said he and Kennedy practice that exact play often.
“Some guys don’t throw a lob or take that risk,” Uguak said. “We always talk about if we get the chance, we better execute on it. I feel like [the dunk] definitely made a statement on the game.”
While the Mean Green improved their shooting percentage as well — 54.5 percent in the second half — they were outscored by the Ramblers 35-30 in the second half. 2020 Conference USA Player of the Year, North Texas redshirt senior guard Javion Hamlet led the Mean Green with 14 points.
Loyola continued its four-game win streak and 14-game home win streak with a 57-49 victory.
Uguak was the star of both halves scoring a career-high 26 points. He not only scored the most points but also matched sharpshooter Kaifes’ two three-pointers himself. He was 3-for-19 total last season from beyond the arc. Uguak also grabbed the most rebounds with seven and added two assists.
“Him and Coach [Jermaine] Kimbrough have been working individually about finishing through contact,” Moser said. “It’s paid off. He’s finishing through contact. He’s confident with his shot. He’s just such a big weapon now.”
Senior center Cameron Krutwig also added 12 points and six rebounds.
Moser said he was specifically impressed with Kennedy’s game today, despite only going 1-for-5 while shooting he added five rebounds, three assists and four steals.
North Texas was 4-3 coming into the game and preparing for its conference season start, which was supposed to be this weekend — but was postponed due to COVID-19 concerns. The Mean Green were voted to finish second out of 12 schools in Conference USA preseason poll after winning the regular season last year.
Moser said playing against a tougher team like North Texas, allows his team to better prepare for Missouri Valley Conference games — specifically Bradley, who was ranked third in the preseason poll.
He said that after the Bradley series was postponed the players didn’t want to sit, they wanted to keep working.
“I thought it was the most high-level physical game that we’ve been a part of in many many years,” Moser said. “There’s high level defenses on both sides. We knew that about North Texas. Bradley is one of the more tough and physical teams and our guys wanted to play.”
Loyola is scheduled to play Drake University Jan. 11 in Des Moines, Iowa. Tip-off is set for 5 p.m.