Playing catch-up since it’s been a few weeks since I’ve blogged…
First, did you catch the excellent write-up by Sam Vecenie in the Sporting News about the Mavs? If not, quit reading my boring post and go read this. It’s really good. The definitive piece that really paints a picture of this season.
So let’s get back to the last few weeks…the Mavs finished conference play in a strong fashion, winning a eight in a row. Those wins included one of the most memorable come-from-behind wins in recent memory,in which the Mavs were down by 15 at Georgia State midway through the second half. Victory was achieved on an Erick Neal buzzer-beater three.
The winning streak also included solid road wins at Georgia Southern and Louisiana Monroe and home wins against a good Arkansas State team and a scrappy Little Rock squad. Unfortunately the Mavs’ chances for an at-large bid were pretty much derailed in the final regular season game of the year with a two-point loss of at Lousiana-Monroe despite Kevin Hervey’s seven threes. Coach Scott Cross said after the game, “When you win several games in a row, you can get a little too comfortable. That is probably what happened tonight. It was their senior night. They played like we did on Senior Night. They were the tougher team. They played a little harder than we did. We lost a close game on the road. It may end up helping us in the conference tournament.”
The first game of the Sun Belt conference tournament saw the Mavs score 45 points in the second half to build on a two-point intermission lead for a 74-51 win. Three Mavs scored in double digits. As convincing at it was, the Mavs’ 25th victory of the season came at a heavy price: senior guard Jalen Jones, super-defender and second leading scorer this season at 12.4 points a game, suffered a hand injury in the final minutes of game. The Mavs, without Jones, allow the Texas State Bobcats to shoot 53% in second game of the tournament on Saturday and lose 83-62. Perhaps a couple of blowout wins and a strong showing in the tournament’s final game could have earned the Mavs an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament, but with the Mavs losing two of their final three games, the reality is now any Mavs postseason competition would be in the NIT. Troy defeated Texas State to punch their ticket to the NCAA tournament.
NCAA tournament selections were announced, and as expected, the Mavs did not earn an at-large bid. The only real question is where would the Mavs would play in the NIT. With College Park Center hosting a cheerleading competition during the first round of the NIT, a first-round road game would be a likely scenario and the Mavs were assigned a sixth seed and a major test in order to earn their first NIT win: facing the dangerous BYU Cougars in Provo, Utah. Yes. The same Cougars that have played in the post-season 12 consecutive years and finished 22-11 on the season and RPI of around 65. The same Cougars that handed Gonzaga their only loss this year. A chance to show the nation how good this team can really be.
The Mavs have handled road games pretty well this season, winning 10 away from Arlington and defeating teams like Texas and St. Mary’s on enemy hardwood. This matchup was an intriguing one in several ways: the Mavs would be playing without a major scorer in Jalen Jones, and as we would find out during the game, senior center Jorge Bilbao required several IVs for dehydration due to a stomach bug the day of the BYU game. Similarly, BYU–coming off a 1-1 performance in the West Coast Conference tournament with an eight point win over Loyola Marymount and a 31 point blowout by St. Mary’s–was facing injury issues of their own. BYU redshirt sophomore Elijah Bryant, averaging 11.7 points and 2.2 assists, re-injured a knee against St. Mary’s in the WCC tournament, ending his season. Making matters worse, Cougar guard TJ Haws was battling an illness. Both teams also feature two first-team conference selections in star forwards Kevin Hervey and Eric Mika. And, the Mavs and Cougars both play an exciting up-tempo style, which is less common in the WCC than in the Sun Belt. Two teams pretty evenly matched, a marquee match of mid-majors that were arguably worthy of making the NCAA tournament.
And this game did not disappoint. By now you know the score: a wire-to-wire UTA 105, BYU 89 victory in front of 7200+ in Provo with a late-night start of 10pm CST. The Mavs and Cougars essentially traded baskets for the first 20 minutes and combined for a crazy 117 points and UTA led 62-55 at half.
The Mavs would continue their hot shooting and add to the lead, outscoring BYU 43-34 in the second half en route to an entertaining 105-89 win. BYU center Mika was unstoppable, scoring 25 in the first half and 29 overall to lead all players. The Mavs made 11 threes and drove to the bucket almost anytime they wanted. Drew Charles was 10-17 with five threes for 28 points. Kaelon Wilson, starting in place of Jones, attacked the basket and got the offense going early. Wilson finished the game with 20 points on a nice 8-11FG, 2-3 point shooting performance. Erick Neal added 13 assists in an incredible display of passing, finding open shooters all night against a tall Cougar lineup. Hervey finished with 22 points on 10-22 shooting with 8 rebounds. And, as mentioned earlier, Bilbao overcame a tough illness and still somehow managed to play 19 minutes and score 8 points on 3-4 shooting. Pretty amazing. Faith Pope, who’s displayed a nice scoring touch as of late, scored 8 points on 4 of 6 shooting including a soaring alley-oop dunk on a baseline inbounds play and grabbed four rebounds as well. Overall, the Mavs seemed to be just a step quicker and used a swarming defense to force 20 BYU turnovers which led to a ton of easy points in transition for the Mavs. Adding icing to a many-years-in-the-making cake, talented walk-on Scott Muirhead made a three, always a very cool thing. The clock expired and it was a final–the Mavs claimed their 26th victory and first NIT victory.
The game was officiated tightly, with several Mavs playing with 3-4 fouls for most of the second half. And I must admit, the NIT foul rules (10-minute segments, resetting team fouls after 10:00, four fouls put teams into the bonus) take a little getting used to. I think I like the rule, but I’m not sure.
Apparently, a lot of folks around the country stayed up late and wanted to know more about this good team from Texas:
Here are just a few post-game quotes and links to good write-ups about the game:
BYU guard Nick Emery: “I thought our pace was good to start off the game. What really got us is they scored 60 points in the first half and if you score 60 points in the first half, you’re up for a 120 point game. That’s a lot of points in college basketball. That’s a good team. I hope they go far. They are a bunch of good guys and they play hard.”
BYU coach Dave Rose: “Congratulations to UTA, and I wish them the best as they progress through the tournament. I think that these two teams were in two different places tonight. UTA was extremely good at executing, and they were a step ahead of us the whole time. We were not reacting quick enough”
Cross on the Mav offense: “It was unbelievable. It starts with our point guard. Erick Neal got everyone involved. He made the right decisions. He was using the pick-and-roll extremely well. Kaelon was extremely aggressive. He was feeling it. He is a guy that has been struggling a little bit recently. He got in a rhythm. He is a guy who can really drive and finish. Hervey is just a dynamic player who can score inside and out. When we are playing the right way, he gets going.”
Cross praising Bilbao’s willingness to fight through his illness: “At shootaround today, Jorge couldn’t even stand up. He had so much abdominal pain. He had to go to the doctor and get three bags of IV for dehydration. He is the toughest player I’ve ever coached. Probably any other player I’ve coached would not have been able to gut it up and play that game.”
Up next: Akron monday night at College Park Center. I’ll try to post some info about Akron before the game in another post…