Women's Basketball

UTA women hope to solve Texas State riddle in tournament

Cierra Johnson, right, has been a catalyst on both sides of the ball during the Mavericks’ stretch run.
Cierra Johnson, right, has been a catalyst on both sides of the ball during the Mavericks’ stretch run. Star-Telegram

When UT Arlington wrapped up its final practice at College Park Center before leaving for the Sun Belt tournament in New Orleans, coach Krista Gerlich made sure to express pride in what her team has already accomplished this year.

Making the jump from four regular-season wins last year in Gerlich’s first season at UTA to 17 wins this year represents the biggest single-season turnaround in program history.

The 13-win improvement surpassed the previous record of 12, set between the 1974 season (11 wins) and 1975 (23) under coach Jody Conradt, who was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 1998.

The turnaround gives this Mavericks team an appetite for postseason wins, not to mention a bigger stage. The Mavs (17-12, 11-9) enter the conference tournament as winners of eight of their final 11 regular-season games and as the Sun Belt’s fifth seed.

The Mavericks will face Texas State (16-13, 11-9), which swept UTA in two regular-season matchups to earn the four-seed in the eight-team field. Tip-off at Lakefront Arena is at 2 p.m. Wednesday.

“There’s a good vibe surrounding the team, a lot of confidence,” Gerlich said. “You really don’t want it to come to an end. They understand the urgency, and they’re in a good place.”

The Mavericks were up 52-43 at Texas State with 3:14 left to play on Feb. 12 before surrendering a 12-3 run, including a 3-pointer from Bobcats guard Taeler Deer that tied the game 55-55 at the end of regulation.

Texas State, which backs into the SBC tournament on the heels of four losses in five games, cruised in overtime and took a 65-58 win.

“We can’t beat ourselves by throwing the ball away, and our guards have to attack more,” UTA guard Cierra Johnson said.

Johnson, second in the Sun Belt in steals (2.6 per game), has been a catalyst on both sides of the ball during the Mavs’ stretch run. The freshman and 2013 Fort Worth Star-Telegram high school player of the year out of Hurst Bell is averaging 13 points, four rebounds and four steals in the past six games.

Gerlich and freshman center Rebekah Van Dijk agreed that an attacking mindset in the backcourt would be a key part of the solution to the Texas State riddle in the teams’ third meeting.

“We need to be more aggressive, and offensively, [Johnson has] been attacking more and scoring more,” Van Dijk said. “Good things happen when she attacks.”

That scorer’s mentality led to Johnson’s season-high 20-point, five-steal outburst in the final game of the season at Appalachian State.

The Mavericks fared better in the late-game situation against the Mountaineers than they did in the heartbreaker against Texas State, making free throws and retaining possession to come away with a 61-53 win instead of inviting the opponent back into the game late.

“We showed much better poise and composure,” Gerlich said. “That game was really big for us in a lot of ways.”

Now her Mavs get ready for what Gerlich has always called the most important game of the season: the next game.

The only difference is, a third loss to Texas State would mean the end of the season.

Sun Belt Conference Tournament

Wendesday-Saturday, Lakefront Arena, New Orleans

UTA at Texas State, 2 p.m. Wednesday

Records: UTA 17-12, 11-9; Texas State 16-13, 11-9