Mavs Defeat Little Rock, Take Sole Possession of 1st

award_ribbon_blue_1st_tThe Mavs continue to defend their home court, remaining undefeated at College Park Center this season and have been rewarded with sole possession of first place in the Sun Belt, now with a record of 19-6 and 9-3 league play.

How’d we get here? The 3-0 homestand started a week ago saturday on 2/4 in front a big afternoon crowd of 3483 (lower bowl mostly full, folks sitting in the upper level too). They were treated to an entertaining game against a much improved Texas State team that resulted in a 76-61 victory. The Mavs jumped out to an early lead and stayed ahead by 7-12 most of the game. Any Bobcat run was usually answered with a Mav run. The Mavs shot a sizzling 60% for the game, with the three finally falling (8-17). Kevin Hervey had 19 and 10, Jorge Bilbao muscled his way to 13 points in the paint on 6-8 shooting and Erick Neal had a 5-8, 3-4 3pt night for 13 points with 7 assists. Coach Scott Cross summed up his feelings on the hot shooting night and the Mavs’ overall approach, saying “I think it comes to shot selection. We have been preaching it with our guys…we made them guard us a little bit longer than the previous game. We made the extra pass until we got great shots and that is what you have to do against a team like this.” Texas State coach Danny Kaspar summed it up this way: “It was a very disappointing loss. They played very well today. They seemed very focused and ready for us. I was very disappointed with our interior defense tonight. We let one of their big men, Bilbao, who is not a very accomplished scorer, have too good a night. We just have to bounce back and come ready to play the next two at home.” Mavs now 1-1 vs. Texas State this season.

The next test was a week later on Saturday against a (then) 18-7, 9-3 Arkansas State team who was then in a tie for first place. Arkansas State is team that’s patient on offense and attacks the paint as well as anyone in the league. ASU held a 7 point lead 13 minutes in, but UTA found its rhythm and led 38-27 at half. It was an 11 point lead that never really felt safe due to ASU’s ability to score points in a hurry. Unfortunately UTA came out a little sluggish in the second half on offense, and ASU made good passes to find gaps in the defense for layups and short jumpers, getting to the free throw line and eventually tied the game up at 70 with about 3 minutes left. ASU, getting away from was working very effectively for them, missed on three point attempts on the following two possessions and

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Kevin Hervey free throw

UTA went on an 11-5 run to close the game. To say this game was officiated tightly is an understatement. Bilbao and Julian Harris were both called for technical fouls (celebrating after dunks if I recall?) and with both teams attacking the paint, there were 59 free throw attempts on 47 fouls. Six players finished with four or more fouls. Sorta felt like the game took 9 hours to play but when both teams are working the ball inside as much as they were, long games happen sometimes.

Hervey led all scorers with 19 on 6-12 shooting with 9 rebounds. Neal had 18 on 5-9 shooting, 6 rebounds and 9 assists. Bilbao had another great game, going coast-to-coast for a layup (how many 6’8″ 230 lb guys can do that?) and Harris had one of the most emphatic dunks I’ve seen at College Park Center, a two-handed masterpiece on a nice feed from the left side. Wow. Neal commented on Bilbao’s 90-foot drive that featured not one, not two but three spin moves to elude defenders: “I was excited. I always get on him in practice for doing that because sometimes he ends up dribbling it off his feet or turn it over, but every time in a game he somehow gets it to go and I’m just like man it’s amazing that a 5 man is able to do what I can do. It’s just great.”

ASU shot 51% for the game but UTA made 26 of 34 free throws (14-25 for ASU). Overall, a great contest between two solid teams. Good stuff. Glad we were able to pull out the victory because ASU is probably the second-best team in the league in my opinion. They run their offense well, make opposing offense work for shots and seem to be very deep. Arkansas State coach Grant McCasland said, “We definitely settled in after the first half. Give UTA credit because they compete really hard defensively and they have such great pace to the way they run their offense. I think we got sped up a little more than what we wanted too early.”

…Which brings us to last night’s game against an good-but-not-great Arkansas Little Rock team that’s winning about as many as they lose (now 13-13, 4-9) and is just one year removed from their magical 30-win season that most schools and fans can only dream of. They graduated some starters and Coach Beard is now at Texas Tech so this might be a bit of a rebuilding season for UALR. But anything can happen in conference play, so records don’t really mean much on any given night.

I’m proud of our guys it was a very ugly game, we couldn’t really get into a rhythm in the first half. Our second group gave us a ton of energy.
-UTA coach Scott Cross

The Trojans got out to an early lead, made some shots early and lead by 3-7 most of the first half while UTA’s offense sputtered a bit. The Mavs led by 1 at half (30-29 on a short buzzer-beating Kevin Hervey putback off a missed Mav three) but points seemed hard to come by most of the first 20:00. The defensive effort was OK for the most part, but on offense the legs looked tired and the ball seemed heavy. Jumpers a bit short, the passing just not as crisp…maybe it was the  late 8:00PM start or smallish crowd (about 1600 on a rainy monday night), but something just seemed a little off. UALR shot 47% for the first half including 4-9 from outside (UTA just 9-25, 4-12). But it kinda felt if (or should I say, “when”) the Mav offense ever got the afterburners lit, UTA would pull away.

Indeed, final 15-20 minutes were totally different. The Trojans were held to just 26% shooting, missing 14 of 16 threes. UTA created some turnovers, (11 steals in the game) got the offensive engine finally hitting on all cylinders and finished the game on a ~30-10 run (or something like that). Overall, one of the best halves of the season from both ends of the floor. Hervey scored 20 points in just 26 minutes on 7-11 shooting (4-6 from 3, 2-2FT). And after missing a couple of shots early, Jalen Jones was unstoppable with 20 points on 7-11 shooting (2-5 3pt, 4-4FT). He was also great on the defensive end, with 5 steals, 4 rebounds, a block and an assist. Neal was 0-5 from the floor but added 7 assists with only two turnovers. The biggest story from this game is probably the quality minutes from the bench that should help come tournament time when depth and experience are often the difference makers at critical moments in tight games. Cross: “I value those guys as much as anybody on our team. Everybody needs to understand how important each and every guy is…without those guys: DJ, Link, Faith, Kaelon, if they don’t do what they did tonight then we probably don’t win that basketball game.”

Kaelon Wilson played 23 minutes and used his incredible speed to get to the paint for 13 points on 5-10 shooting. Link Kabadyundi played 10 minutes, grabbed 2 boards and and went 2-3 from the free throw line and is an imposing defensive presence inside. Freshman PG DJ Bryant, Neal’s talented understudy, played 10 minutes and ran the offense very efficiently with an assist and 2 rebounds. Faith Pope scored 5 and had 3 rebounds and a steal in 10 minutes.

Game story: Arkansas Online

Up next: Georgia State and Georgia Southern next weekend, then home vs. South Alabama and Troy before a final road trip to ULM and Lousiana. So if we can split the next two games in Georgia, the schedule gets a bit easier and the Mavs could finish 4-2 in the final six games, giving them a record of 23-8, 13-5 in conference. But anything can happen in conference play…

So…here’s the standings as of now:

Sun Belt Standings as of Tuesday 2/14/17
School Conference Overall NCAA RPI Next two games
UTA 9-3 19-6 41 at Georgia St., at Georgia Southern
Ark. St. 9-4 18-8 78 vs. UARL, vs. Georgia Southern
Georgia St. 9-4 16-9 127 vs. UTA, vs. Texas St.
Georgia Southern 9-4 16-10 121 vs. Texas St., vs. UTA
Texas St. 8-4 15-9 204 at Georgia St., at Georgia Southern
Coastal Carolina 8-5 13-13 147 at Troy, at South Ala.
Troy 6-6 14-12 142 vs. Coastal Carolina, App. St.
South Ala. 5-7 12-13 210 vs. App. St., vs. Coastal Carolina
Louisiana-Lafayette 5-8 15-11 160 at Louisiana-Monroe, at Coastal Carolina
Little Rock 4-9 13-13 244 at Ark. State, vs. Georgia St.
App. St. 3-10 8-16 251 at South Ala., at Troy
Louisiana-Monroe 1-12 7-19 312 vs. Lousiana-Lafayette, at Coastal Carolina
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