You would be hard pressed to find a bigger week in the history of the UT-Arlington basketball program. On Friday, the Mavericks took down Ohio State on the road, a win that few saw coming.
Monday night, they put together a great end to the exacta, traveling down the road to Memphis and beating the Tigers, 68-64. It wasn't the prettiest of wins for the Mavericks, but they will gladly take a performance that saw them withstand a second-half charge by Memphis, and come back themselves.
It was probably a position that UT-Arlington should never have been in, down six points midway through the second half. Memphis could not find its shot for the entire game, ultimately finishing 16-for-54 from the floor and an abysmal 4-for-21 from 3-point range. Still, it was a 3-point shot by Avery Woodson that gave the Tigers their biggest lead of the game, one that would start to drift away.
The tide had turned for the Mavericks because of the aggressive defense that Memphis exited the locker room with at halftime. Where the first half was sloppy on both ends, Memphis finally handled the ball when they took it away from the Mavericks instead of relying on missed shots or errant passes. The Tigers then pushed the tempo and forced UT-Arlington into fouling mode to keep the game from just getting out of hand.
Memphis would go to the line 44 times on the night, and make just 28. When you lose by four, no matter how poorly you shoot from the floor, you can look back at 16 missed free throws as an opportunity lost. The foul numbers mounted for the Mavericks and they let Memphis back into the game with the clock constantly on pause.
Yet it was not to be, mostly thanks to the impressive play of Kevin Hervey who was one of the few Mavericks to stay out of foul trouble in the contest. He scored 22 points, and grabbed 11 rebounds, including seven on the offensive end. He out-hustled Memphis to the basket on numerous occasions to keep Maverick possessions alive and ultimately help them come out ahead.
He punctuated the win with a one-handed dunk late in the game that put UT-Arlington up five with 23 seconds to play. The run out came off a steal by Erick Neal that essentially sealed the win for the Mavericks.
Memphis may not be the Memphis team that everyone is used to from the past several years, but this is a still a signature win for a Mavericks team that was picked 8th in the Sun Belt prior to the season. They had no players selected to the preseason all-conference team. Yet here they are sitting with two wins of a caliber that few teams can boast at this point in the year.
Maybe they should have made the Mid-Major Madness Power 15.
There is still a lot to work on for Scott Cross, who may be the most understated coach after a win, or in a pep talk before a game coming off a big victory. The Mavericks shot just 33.3 percent from the floor, on an amazing 78 attempts. They were 5-for-28 from the 3-point line, and with as bad as Memphis was at the charity stripe, UT-Arlington was worse.
But there were 20 offensive rebounds, including three from both Jalen Jones, who was the star of the first half for the Mavericks, and Jorge Bilbao. And there were 10 steals in the game, including three by Hervey.
The defense certainly seems solid enough, given that they have now held two opponents in a row to less than a point per possession, and almost held Memphis to less than a point per minute in the first half. If the offense can click with as well, especially with the high tempo that the Mavericks run, they will be hard to stop and a real sleeper in the Sun Belt.
That is where this team goes from here, starting with a game that they should easily win against Grambling at home on Wednesday. That is the perfect time to tune some of the squeaky gears in this machine before having to go back out on the road to Rice and Texas.
The Mavericks could very well be 5-1 when they face the Longhorns, and at that point, won't be sneaking up on Shaka Smart and his aggressive defense.