In an up-and-down season for UT Arlington, the Sun Belt tournament represents the final chance to turn a disappointing year into a championship.
The Mavericks need to win four games in four days to notch a conference championship and a berth in the NCAA Tournament, beginning with Thursday’s 8 p.m. matchup against Louisiana-Monroe at the New Orleans Lakefront Arena.
A title run seems unlikely since the Mavericks haven’t won four games in a row all season, and they enter as the No. 6 seed. But that didn’t stop the 2008 team, a No. 7 seed, from sweeping through the Southland Conference tournament and earning the first NCAA Tournament berth in school history.
Even last season, the No. 4-seeded Mavericks made it to the Western Athletic Conference title game before losing 64-55 to New Mexico State. UTA coach Scott Cross is 6-5 in tournament games since taking over in 2006 and said this year’s team needs to buckle down to save this season.
“To win a conference tournament, you need to be able to score the basketball,” he said. “We’re capable of scoring some points, and we know that.”
The Mavericks will need big performances out of seniors Reger Dowell, the Sun Belt’s leading scorer at 20.2 points per game, and Brandon Edwards, who is 29 rebounds from a school-record 858 for his career.
Even if Dowell and Edwards deliver the firepower, UTA’s conference-worst defense (77.7 points allowed) needs to tighten up. Louisiana-Monroe’s Warhawks average 64.3 points, second lowest in the Sun Belt.
Cross said defense has been his team’s biggest problem, but said anything can happen when the stakes are raised.
“It comes down to our individual players and them making the decision to get down in their stance, to close out and play with that intensity you need to win the game,” Cross said.
The Mavericks, 14-16 overall and 9-9 in Sun Belt play, swept Louisiana-Monroe (10-16, 7-11) in the regular season. Third-seeded Louisiana-Lafayette awaits the winner, and that survivor will play second-seeded Western Kentucky in the semifinals. The Mavericks went 1-3 against those teams this season.