To catalog the big moments in UT Arlington’s basketball history that have culminated in the Mavericks’ top seed in the Sun Belt tournament, you’d have to start with last year.
Before Kevin Hervey — a sophomore who was averaging 18.1 points and 9.8 rebounds — went down with a torn ACL, UTA raised eyebrows with road wins over traditional powers Ohio State and Memphis.
With Hervey on the mend this season, UTA was a mid-major darling again after two program firsts: A victory over Texas, in Austin, and a win over a Top 25 team, a 65-51 decision at then-No. 12 Saint Mary’s.
Then there was an eight-game winning streak in conference play that sealed UTA’s first Sun Belt regular season championship since it joined the league before the 2013-14 season.
Perhaps the biggest moment of the year came during the streak, on Feb. 18 at Georgia State.
That’s when junior guard Erick Neal, a Dallas Lincoln graduate, nailed a 27-footer with 0.9 of a second left for a 68-67 victory. Georgia State sat just a half-game back of UTA at the time, and a loss could have swung the season’s momentum back in the direction of the “what-ifs” of a year ago.
But don’t call it “destiny.”
“I wish we could look at it that way,” senior guard Drew Charles said of Neal’s buzzer-beating, potentially season-saving 3-pointer. “But on the other hand, if anybody’s going to make that shot, it’s going to be Erick. I’ve seen him practice that shot. It’s surprising when it goes in because of the stage, but we all know he’s capable in those moments.”
Neal (10.3 points, 6.5 assists per game) was named to the All-Sun Belt second team, while Hervey, an Arlington Bowie grad, was named the conference’s player of the year after he averaged 17.3 points and 8.4 rebounds.
“This has to go down as one of the best seasons, if not the best season, in the history of UT Arlington basketball,” said coach Scott Cross, who as named the league’s coach of the year. “I don’t win that award without these guys.”
UTA’s 24 wins match the team’s previous season-best win total set in 2011-12, and matched last year, when the Mavericks made it to the quarterfinals of the Collegeinsider.com postseason tournament. This year, they’re three Sun Belt tournament victories from the program’s second appearance in the NCAA Tournament.
The Neal-Hervey tandem has been formidable, sometimes backbreakingly so for Sun Belt foes, but the Mavericks’ true 10- to 11-man rotation is what separated UTA from the conference herd at the end of the year. Despite stumbling in the regular-season finale at Louisiana Lafayette, the Mavs (24-7, 14-4 Sun Belt) were two games clear of Georgia State (19-11, 12-6) for the conference tournament’s No. 1 seed.
“That’s probably the difference between us and the other teams,” Cross said. “As the games go along, our depth favors us. We’re two deep at every position, and as the tournament progresses, I think that gives us an advantage if we’re fortunate enough to continue to advance.”
That starts with an interesting matchup in the Sun Belt tourney quarterfinals Friday in New Orleans. UTA split games against Coastal Carolina (16-16, 10-8) in the regular season, dismantling the Chanticleers at home on New Year’s Eve before falling 72-70 at Coastal in January.
That loss preceded UTA’s eight-game winning streak down the stretch. The Mavericks turned their 6-3 conference mark into 14-3 by March 2, after Coastal controlled the boards (51 rebounds) and held the Mavs to 35 percent shooting in Conway, S.C.
“That loss refocused everybody. Sometimes you win a bunch of games and forget a little bit about what got you there,” Cross said. “When we’re really at our best, these guys don’t waste any possessions.
“I think our guys are going to be really, really focused because we did blow a lot of possessions at Lafayette, and at Coastal Carolina as well. These guys know the formula, and if they stick to it, I think we’ll be the Sun Belt champions.”
Hervey had huge games in both of those losses, a career-high 34 points in the 83-81 loss at Louisiana Lafayette to end the regular season, and 23 points and 12 boards earlier in the year at Coastal. If the Mavericks can channel the same focus and execution in the Sun Belt tournament as they did during that eight-game winning streak, well, that’s when dreams start to come true.
“It’s been a couple nights that I’ve stayed awake and thought about playing in the NCAA Tournament,” Charles said. “But you have to take it one game at a time, one possession at a time. We know the steps we have to take to get that dream.”
Matthew Martinez; 817-390-7760; @MCTinez817
UT Arlington men vs. Coastal Carolina
11:30 a.m. Friday
SUN BELT TOURNAMENT
at New Orleans
UTA vs. Coastal Carolina, 11:30 a.m.
Louisiana Monroe vs. Texas State, 2 p.m.
Louisiana vs. Georgia State, 5 p.m.
Troy vs. Georgia Southern, 7:30 p.m.
Semifinals, 11:30 a.m. and 2 p.m.
Championship, 1 p.m., ESPN2