he Mean Green men’s basketball team made North Texas athletic history and broke countless brackets in March when they beat Purdue 78-69 in overtime in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
In their first NCAA tournament game since 2010 and fourth of all-time, the Mean Green finally broke through with a victory by stunning the fourth-seeded and 20th ranked Purdue Boilermakers. The win was UNT’s first ever in the tournament, first over an AP Top 25 opponent (No. 20) since 1971, and first over a Big 10 opponent since 1967.
The Mean Green held Purdue scoreless in the overtime period until there were under 30 seconds to play in the game. North Texas (18-9), the 13-seed in the South Region, started the extra period on an 11-0 run and had four players in double-figures, led by Javion Hamlet’s 24 points.
Before the final buzzer had even sounded, Hamlet made his way to the Purdue fan section and had some words for them.
“‘Don’t ever doubt me,’ that’s what I told the Purdue fans,” Hamlet says.
Just the week before, the North Texas team won the 2021 Air Force Reserve C-USA Men’s Basketball Championship after beating WKU 61-57 in overtime in the finals -- earning an automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament.
The team’s dance came to an end in their next NCAA game, with an 84-61 loss against fifth-seeded Villanova, but not before the Mean Green’s scrappy attitude made many new fans across the country.
“It’s a great feeling to be the first team in history to win a tournament game,” Hamlet says. “Can’t no one ever take that away from us. We showed the world we’re gritty. We showed the world we can play with anybody.”
"Having her on the court made our team who we were."
Junior setter Kasey Bortnam saw Kaliegh Skopal as the backbone of the Mean Green volleyball team -- and for good reason. A captain, Skopal led Conference USA in assists during the 2019 season. That year, Skopal and the team headed to Florida for a road trip against FIU and FAU -- if they kept their eye on the ball, there was a good chance they'd find themselves back in the C-USA regular season title race.
But that trip brought more than surprises on the court. Right before the walk through with FIU, Skopal presented with a migraine. She spent the game in the locker room, but her symptoms only worsened. Skopal received treatment for the migraine at Boca Raton Hospital, and was sent home.
By the next morning, she felt worse -- "I felt like I had no control over my left eye," she says. She tried to shake the feeling off during practice. Her hands and legs grew weaker, her fingers began to curl. A battery of tests at the ER revealed a startling diagnosis: Guillain-Barré syndrome, a condition in which the immune system attacks the nerves.
Over the next few months, Skopal began a long road to recovery. The girl who could once deadlift 175 pounds could now only lift six. She had to relearn basic motor skills like opening her hands. Still, she says, she "prayed every day that I get that chance to play for one more season."
This spring, after a few canceled and delayed games, that dream finally came true. The UNT senior returned to the court Feb. 4 in UNT's season opener against Wichita State. Skopal finished with 13 digs and led the Mean Green with 17 assists.
See more of Kaleigh's story on Beyond the Green.
North Texas men's track and field completed the most decorated Conference USA Championship meet in Mean Green history with an overall team second place showing, four individual titles and a school record Feb. 21 inside the Birmingham Crossplex. Antonio Delacruz became a two-time C-USA champion, the first Mean Green ever to do so, with his victories in the 60- (6.74 seconds) and 200-meter dash (21.22). Joseph Squire improved his own North Texas record in the 60-meter hurdles to 7.93 seconds in his title-clinching race. Chris Samaniego's sixth and final throw of 16.22 meters in shot put moved him to the top spot to clinch his victory. The UNT men totaled 114 points as a team, second to only Charlotte. The runner-up finish and team score are both program bests.
Phil Bennett, one of the most experienced defensive coordinators in college football, has been named the Mean Green's defensive coordinator and safeties coach. Bennett brings 40 years of coaching experience to Denton, including six seasons as the head coach at SMU (2002-07) and nine stints as defensive coordinator at nine different schools, most recently Arizona State (2017). Throughout his career, Bennett has overseen the growth of 56 different players that have gone on to NFL careers.
Additionally, head coach Seth Littrell rounded out his coaching staff by promoting Mike Bloesch to offensive coordinator and primary playcaller, and adding Blake Joseph as quarterbacks coach, Jarred Holley as cornerbacks coach and Matt Passwaters as defensive line coach.
Bloesch will continue as the team's offensive line coach in his new role. He served as a co-offensive coordinator and offensive line coach in 2020, his first season in Denton, helping guide the Mean Green to the eighth-ranked total offense in the nation in 2020.
Joseph arrives in Denton after spending five seasons at Magnolia West High School, the last two as head coach. Holley spent the past three years at Albany as the Great Danes' safeties coach, and Passwaters spent the 2020 season working as a quality control assistant on the offensive side of the ball at Hawaii.