The last time UT Arlington was preparing for a matchup with in-state rival Texas State, the Mavericks were in the middle of a stretch of six losses in seven games.
But three straight Sun Belt Conference wins in response to that bumpy patch have kept the young Mavs afloat in the conference standings as they head to San Marcos on Thursday to battle the Bobcats at Strahan Coliseum.
UTA’s last two wins, at home against Troy and at Louisiana Lafayette, have come at the hands of teams ahead of the Mavericks (12-9, 6-6) in the conference standings. Coach Krista Gerlich said the three-game win streak has the team playing with joy again, and the Mavs now turn their focus toward a strong finish with eight regular-season games remaining.
“For a while, when we were losing, it wasn’t all that fun anymore,” center Rebekah Van Dijk said. “Now, the sky’s the limit.”
One big reason for the reversal of fortune has been the emergence of another frontcourt asset in 6-foot-3 forward Toma Zaleckaite. The junior, a transfer from Weatherford College in her first year with the Mavs, has achieved season-high point totals (12, 13) in the last two wins.
“It just came from this sense of urgency,” Zaleckaite said. “I told myself I had to step it up.”
If the trend continues, it would set UTA up with the most effective frontcourt in the conference. Van Dijk already leads the Sun Belt in field-goal percentage (58.2 percent) and blocks per game (1.9), and is one of only two players in the conference to average a double-double (13.1 points, 10.5 rebounds).
Van Dijk said there wouldn’t be many Sun Belt teams that could match up with a team that goes 6-5 and 6-3 in the post down the stretch. The tallest players on the Texas State roster, forwards Kileah Mays and Jacqueline Jeffcoat, both Dallas-area products, stand 6-2.
“It helps a lot, and it’s fun, too,” Van Dijk said. “I think it scares some people.”
“Big is good,” Zaleckaite added.
Gerlich has relished the development and interplay between the two as the team needed a boost to keep pace in the crowded middle of the Sun Belt. Texas State (13-9, 8-5) is tied for third in the conference, a game and a half ahead of the Mavs.
“[Zaleckaite] and Rebekah have a great relationship, and I think you can see on the court that they trust each other,” Gerlich said. “Toma makes some passes to Rebekah that she might not make to other people. That kind of trust is huge.”
But last time the Mavericks faced Texas State, the Bobcats sent double teams flying at Van Dijk and held her to seven points. When Zaleckaite’s spot-up jumper is falling as it has the last two games, opposing coaches might be wary of sending the second defender as quickly.
Gerlich said that and improved guard play make the Mavs a scary teamtoward the end of the regular season.
“It’s exciting to see us coming together and figuring it out at the right time,” Gerlich said. “Now, what we need is the leadership and maturity to know that nothing has been magically fixed; it’s taken hard work and focus to get better every day and every game.”
UTA at Texas State
5:30 p.m. Thursday, Strahan Coliseum, San Marcos
Records: UTA 12-9, 6-6 Sun Belt; Texas State 13-9, 8-5