Katenda's Career-Best Night Sparks NT Past Charlotte, 80-77
With Combs Injured, North Texas Gets Contributions Throughout Lineup
DENTON - Eric Katenda arrived at the Super Pit Saturday knowing more would be needed of him on senior Day. Much, much more.
North Texas was without leading scorer and rebounder Jeremy Combs due to injury, and the Mean Green's strategy to take away Charlotte's potent three-point shooters meant Katenda would face extended minutes against Conference USA's leader in rebounds and double doubles, the 49ers' 6-10 center Joseph Uchebo.
Katenda responded with a career-high 20 points, a shot block and five rebounds, including two huge boards in the final two minutes, then hit a pair of free throws with 4.6 seconds left to give North Texas an 80-77 victory in its home finale.
"Eric stepped up tonight," North Texas coach Tony Benford said. "We made plays and we got defensive stops when we needed to. It was a great effort without Jeremy."
With Combs sidelined by a leg injury sustained Thursday against Old Dominion, the Mean Green found solutions throughout the lineup.
North Texas got scoring from Katenda, Deckie Johnson (19 points), J'Mychal Reese (19 points) and Ja'Michael Brown (13 points). It got nine rebounds from Johnson and stayed even with the 49ers on the boards all night. It got a critical defensive stop from Greg White-Pittman with 13 seconds to play and North Texas clinging to a one-point lead. And it sent a combination of Rickey Brice, Jr., Katenda and Khalil Fuller to do battle in the paint against Uchebo.
Uchebo scored 23 points and pulled down 19 rebounds, but Katenda and Brice matched his offense by combining for 24 points while the North Texas guards allowed Charlotte just four three-pointers, 10 below their season average.
"We had to take away their transition and the three-point shot," Benford said. "We guarded for 40 minutes.
"I was really proud of the toughness we demonstrated," he added. "We played together, that's the main thing."
The win gives North Texas (12-19 on the year, 7-11 in league) the ninth seed in the upcoming C-USA Championship in Birmingham.
In a game that was close throughout, North Texas led by as much as seven in the second half and was up five with under four minutes to play before a quick 4-0 Charlotte run made it a one-point game w ith 2:57 to play. Four times in the final two minutes Charlotte had a chance to take the lead, but the Mean Green's defense turned the 49ers away, forcing two turnovers - including White-Pittman's defensive gem against a 49er drive to the hoop - and two missed shots, both of which were won by Katenda in a melee of flailing arms.
After Katenda's free throws made it a three-point NT lead, Charlotte took a 40-foot three pointer that didn't come close.
The contest got off to a ragged start as the teams combined to hit just eight of the first 25 field-goal attempts. North Texas, without Combs, particularly struggled to find its scoring through the first 10 minutes, and Charlotte built a seven-point advantage, 22-15.
But North Texas responded with a 9-2 run, capped by a three from Deckie Johnson to draw even. Johnson did his best to make up for the missing Combs, scoring 11 points and grabbing a team-high eight rebounds in the opening 20 minutes, and Reese added 10 points. North Texas also got key contributions in the paint from Brice and Katenda, who combined for three first-half shot blocks and six rebounds, and Brown finished the half with a long-distance three at the busser to pull the Mean Green within one, 38-37, at intermission.
Deckie Johnson has 71 three-point field goals this season, the fourth-best single-season total in school history.
Mean Green freshman center Rickey Brice, Jr., turned in a heads up play when battling for a rebound against Charlotte's senior center, Joseph Ochebo. As the two clawed for a 49er missed shot, Brice was able to fire the ball at Ochebo's knees, sending it out of bounds off Ochebo and giving possession to North Texas.
North Texas travels to Birmingham, Ala., for the Conference USA Basketball Championship. The Mean Green will open tournament play on Wednesday, Mar. 9, against Western Kentucky at noon.