The pride that comes with keeping a spotless record on UT Arlington’s home floor will be dwarfed by another goal when the Mavericks (27-8) host Cal State Bakersfield (24-9) Wednesday in the NIT basketball quarterfinals.
Maybe you’ve heard by now. The winner of this particular game at College Park Center earns a trip to New York and a berth in the NIT semifinals, held each year at Madison Square Garden.
One home game, in a building whose confines the Mavericks haven’t lost over a year, for a trip to New York is a comfortable place, but not too comfortable if UTA coach Scott Cross has anything to do with it.
I think they’re locked in on winning this game and going to Madison Square Garden.
UTA coach Scott Cross
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“I think they’re locked in on winning this game and going to Madison Square Garden,” UTA coach Scott Cross said. “[The home streak] isn’t something they’re worried about. They just feed off the energy of the crowd when we’re in [College Park Center].”
This season it’s been 14 opponents up and 14 down in the nurturing biosphere of the UTA mothership. The next opponent, much like UTA, has been playing championship level defense since the start of the NIT.
In the first round, the Roadrunners allowed 1-seed California just 66 points on 4-of-24 first half shooting in the Golden Bears’ building. Monday at Colorado State, Bakersfield held the Rams to just 6-of-26 shooting from beyond the arc to create a 15-point differential from deep in an 81-63 win.
The WAC regular-season champion Runners come into the UTA matchup 18th in the nation in scoring defense (63.1 points allowed per game), third in the nation in field-goal percentage defense (37.0 percent) and tied for 12th in steals per game as a team (8.4). Token defenders at Monday’s UTA practice tried to mimic the pesky, high-energy perimeter defense Bakersfield shows on film.
“They’re so aggressive on defense,” UTA guard Drew Charles said. “We’re going to have to keep the ball tight. Only crisp, nice passes.”
Which is right where the UTA offense has excelled lately. Not only has point guard Erick Neal strung together back-to-back games of 13 and nine assists, but primary scoring threat Kevin Hervey is finding the open man as well, with nine assists combined against BYU and Akron as his offensive reputation has preceded himself against the two unfamiliar foes.
That, and the Mavericks’ championship level defense, has led to an offense that develops quicker than the opposing defense can oftentimes think. It’s evident when Neal rifles an underhand scoop pass from midcourt to a knifing Kaelon Wilson, who finishes with an easy one-handed dunk.
It’s evident when Neal intercepts a wayward pass like a football free safety and orchestrates a playground finish for a streaking teammate.
“Erick definitely has a special talent for seeing things before they happen and getting people the ball where they need it to be,” said junior guard Nathan Hawkins, who finished an alley-oop dunk off a bounce from Neal in the second half Monday. Hawkins has stepped into more of a regular role as Wilson moved into the starting lineup due to Jalen Jones’ hand injury. Hawkins was one of six Mavs who scored in double figures (10) in Monday’s 85-69 win over Akron.
Erick definitely has a special talent for seeing things before they happen and getting people the ball where they need it to be.
UTA’s Nathan Hawkins about teammate Erick Neal
“He’s one of the few people I’ve seen with a talent on his level,” Hawkins said of Neal. “It’s amazing that he can set people up the way he does, and when he does, we’re tough to beat.”
Cross is in agreement, “As Erick goes, we go.”
Both he and UTA seem headed in the right direction this postseason, charting a course for New York City.
Matthew Martinez; 817-390-7760; @MCTinez817
UTA vs. Cal State Bakersfield
8 p.m. Wednesday, ESPNU