Six players scored in double figures for UT Arlington on Monday, led by Lancaster graduate Kaelon Wilson’s 18 points on 7 of 9 shooting, as the Mavericks routed Akron 85-69 in the second round of the NIT.
A season-high crowd of 5,390 witnessed the win at College Park Center that guaranteed UTA at least one more game in the 2016-17 season.
And that will be a home game after No. 8 seed Cal State Bakerfield won 81-63 at Colorado State on Monday night. The Mavs will host Cal State Bakersfield in the NIT quarterfinals at 8 p.m. Wednesday (ESPNU).
The Mavs’ defense took away not only Akron’s first offensive option, but its second as well, as center Isaiah Johnson was saddled with foul trouble in the second half and UTA’s perimeter defenders closed out quickly on the Zips’ arsenal of long-range shooters.
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“It started with Jorge [Bilbao] making it tough for Johnson to get catches, and then our [double teams] were really really good,” UTA coach Scott Cross said. “Then our rotations out of it were great.”
The closeout speed on defense led to a fast-paced first half, as Wilson and point guard Erick Neal turned missed 3-pointers and long rebounds into transition opportunities on the other end. UTA took early advantage of six misses on the Zips’ first seven shots from the field and held Akron to 10-of-35 shooting from 3-point range all night.
I’m still as confident as I’ve ever been. It’s just, I have a bigger opportunity to go out there and show what I can do.
UTA guard Kaelon Wilson
Wilson finished a lob pass in transition from forward Kevin Hervey for an early 9-3 lead four minutes into the game and then forced an Akron timeout late in the half with a dunk over Johnson in transition on a pass from Neal with 3:32 left before halftime.
The junior, who stepped into UTA’s starting lineup when senior guard Jalen Jones’ season was cut short by a hand injury in the quarterfinals of the Sun Belt tournament, has been the Mavericks’ most efficient player in NIT play, going 15 of 20 from the field for a combined 38 points in the first and second rounds.
Wilson has always found success driving with the ball. In the past two games, though, with a bigger chunk of responsibility for the Mavs’ lot in the postseason, he’s found his jumper to go along with it as well.
“I’m still as confident as I’ve ever been,” Wilson said. “It’s just, I have a bigger opportunity to go out there and show what I can do.”
Neal and Hervey each added 13 in UTA’s win. Hervey grabbed seven boards and found teammates for five assists, while Neal found joy in the fast break all night long with nine more assists after he tied a career-high in the first round at BYU with 13.
I feel like we can win it all with people like (Wilson) stepping up and playing their best basketball.
UTA point guard Erick Neal
Neal took one of his three steals with just under 12 minutes to play. With a clear path to the basket, he saw teammate Nathan Hawkins hustling to the rim out of the corner of his eye. Instead of a lob pass, he emphatically bounced an alley-oop pass to Hawkins who finished off with a jam that gave UTA a 66-40 lead.
It was the kind of play that underscored the unapologetic confidence and showmanship this UTA team has always possessed. But beating their first two NIT opponents by a combined 32 points has elevated the Mavericks’ mind frame to a spot few saw coming when they made an early exit from the Sun Belt conference tournament on March 11.
“When we first heard ‘NIT,’ we all thought, ‘I don’t want to play in the NIT. I want to play in the Big Dance,’ ” Neal said. “But as we see the teams playing in it, we’ve seen this is a big tournament, too, and I feel like we can win it all with people like (Wilson) stepping up and playing their best basketball.”
Should the Mavericks win one more NIT game, they will earn a spot in the semifinals at Madison Square Garden in New York next week. TCU is also in the quarterfinals, having won 94-92 at Iowa on Sunday.
Matthew Martinez; 817-390-7760; @MCTinez817
AKRON (27-9): Cheatham 4-12 1-2 11, Johnson 3-5 3-5 9, Ivey 4-9 6-8 14, An.Jackson 1-7 3-3 6, Robotham 2-8 2-2 7, Olojakpoke 0-0 0-0 0, Hughes 0-0 0-0 0, Dunn-Martin 2-7 0-0 5, Dalton 0-1 0-0 0, Williams 3-6 0-0 9, Aa.Jackson 1-2 0-2 3, Utomi 2-7 0-1 5. Totals 22-64 15-23 69.
UT Arlington (27-8): Bilbao 3-6 4-5 10, Hervey 6-14 0-0 13, Wilson 7-9 2-4 18, Charles 4-8 0-0 11, Neal 5-10 0-0 13, Pope 3-4 0-0 7, Muirhead 0-1 0-0 0, Harris 0-1 0-0 0, Kabadyundi 1-2 1-2 3, Bryant 0-0 0-0 0, Jones 0-0 0-0 0, Hawkins 4-6 0-1 10. Totals 33-61 7-12 85.
Halftime—UT Arlington 39-26. 3-Point Goals—Akron 10-34 (Williams 3-6, Cheatham 2-8, Robotham 1-2, Aa.Jackson 1-2, Utomi 1-3, Dunn-Martin 1-4, An.Jackson 1-6, Ivey 0-3), UT Arlington 12-28 (Charles 3-7, Neal 3-7, Hawkins 2-2, Wilson 2-3, Pope 1-2, Hervey 1-6, Muirhead 0-1). Fouled Out—Ivey. Rebounds—Akron 32 (Ivey, Cheatham 8), UT Arlington 37 (Bilbao 9). Assists—Akron 8 (Johnson 3), UT Arlington 20 (Neal 8). Total Fouls—Akron 18, UT Arlington 16. Technicals—Jones.