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Slam Dance

Erasing decades of basketball frustration, the Mavericks earn their first NCAA Tournament berth

UT Arlington player dunks basketball in game.

Left: Jermaine Griffin dunks over Memphis' Robert Dozier in the Mavericks' first-round NCAA Tournament game. Right: Larry Posey celebrates UT Arlington's first Southland Conference Tournament title.

B

y the time the team bus reached Huntsville, Scott Cross’ cellphone battery was dead.

Just too many congratulatory calls.

Hours earlier, his Mavericks had defeated Northwestern State for the Southland Conference championship, earning the first men’s NCAA Tournament berth in 32 years of Division I basketball.

As the team returned from Katy, near Houston, friends and family in the Fort Worth-Dallas area couldn’t stop calling, thrilled over UT Arlington’s 82-79 victory in the title game. More than 25 calls were from radio stations wanting to know what these young Mavericks were all about. With only three seniors, the team had rebounded from a midseason slide and swept through the league tournament.

Cross, a former UT Arlington player and for eight years an assistant coach, could see the landscape of the basketball program changing.

“We knocked down some walls this season. Fans of UTA basketball have been starving for success, and this team worked hard and stayed together to give them something we’ll all remember for a very long time. The national exposure and attention we got from the local television and radio stations is so important, you can’t even measure it. Now we have to keep it going and get back there.”

UT Arlington Mavericks basketball team

Top: Coach Scott Cross demonstrates his "Big Dance" moves. Bottom: The Mavericks celebrate with their SLC championship trophy.

UT Arlington’s trip to the NCAA Tournament ended with a loss against Memphis, 87-63, in front of a national CBS audience. The game, players said, was the kind of atmosphere they always dreamed about. But the events leading to it were equally special, said SLC Tournament Most Valuable Player Anthony Vereen.

“When we cut down the nets, you could see how happy we made all of our fans when they climbed the ladder and got a piece of it,” said Vereen, UT Arlington’s leading scorer with 13.8 points per game this season. “That was a special moment. I think we were just as happy for them as we were for ourselves. We were able to accomplish something that had never been done at this school. We saw all the programs, where schools are listed with all their NCAA Tournament appearances. By our name, it always said, ‘None.’ It won’t say that anymore.”

The celebrations following UT Arlington’s first trip to the Big Dance spilled from the floor at the Merrill Center in Katy to the hospitality room, where everyone gathered around a big-screen TV to learn the first-round NCAA opponent. When the graphic flashed “UT Arlington” in the top left corner, it was right next to “Memphis.”

Mavericks fans and players didn’t care. It was party time in Arlington.

When the bus arrived home, two local TV crews and more than 200 Mavericks faithful greeted the team. Off the bus last was senior Jermaine Griffin, net draped around his neck and SLC Tournament trophy in his hands.

Cross did a live interview, with fans in the background chanting, “UTA! UTA!”

“When you’re trying to build a program, fan support is so important,” the second-year coach said. “Our fans came out in numbers. They were enthusiastic and supportive every step of the way. I can’t say enough about our fans and students during that whole run. People who think UT Arlington doesn’t have a lot of fan support only needed to look up in the stands at the Memphis game and see how much blue and white was there.”

Road to the NCAA Tournament

UT Arlington fans and player Anthony Vereen

Left: Leading scorer Anthony Vereen celebrates two of his team-high 20 points against eventual NCAA runner-up Memphis. Right: About 500 spirited fans traveled to Little Rock to cheer on the Mavericks.

UT Arlington’s remarkable run in 2007-08 included an eight-game win streak to start the season before a loss to TCU in Fort Worth. The game marked the end of the season for second-leading scorer Brandon Long, who was injured in the final minute of overtime and needed six weeks to recover. UT Arlington spent the next few weeks changing lineups and overcoming a conference-opening loss.

Midway through SLC play, the Mavericks were 4-4. Their 8-0 start had turned into a 14-6 record by Feb. 2. With the regular season winding down, the Mavericks got the shot in the arm they needed on a road trip to Stephen F. Austin.

Cross challenged his guys to prove they could play with the best in the conference, and they responded with a 75-65 victory March 1 against the league-leading Lumberjacks. The roll continued into the SLC Tournament.

A victory against Lamar in the first round and Sam Houston in the second meant that, in a span of two weeks, UT Arlington had defeated the West Division champion (SFA), East Division champion (Lamar) and the team with the third-best league record (SHSU).

“It took us awhile to get the right pieces together and get people playing in the right roles,” Cross said. “That SFA game was big. That’s the one that gave us the spark and is still the biggest reason we go to Little Rock.”

Nearly 500 fans made the trip to Arkansas for the NCAA South Regional. UT Arlington played the last of four first-round games March 21 at the Alltel Center.

MAVERICK

MILESTONES

21 victories - school record

8 victories to open the season - best start in school history

17-game home win streak - school record

6 non-conference victories over Division I opponents - school record

Including the conference tournament, the Mavericks defeated 10 of the 12 SLC teams

The team shot 47.7 percent from the field - 23rd among 326 Division I schools

The Mavericks held teams to 40.1 percent shooting - 27th in the nation

Rogér Guignard's 99 3-pointers - school record for a single season

The Mavericks showed no fear against the top-seeded Memphis Tigers, who had lost just one game all season and boasted three NBA prospects in their starting lineup. A Tommy Moffitt 3-pointer gave UT Arlington a 6-3 lead in the early going.

Memphis, which would eventually reach the NCAA championship game, led by 11 midway through the first half. The advantage grew to 14 with 9:29 left, but the Mavericks didn’t quit.

Another Moffitt 3-pointer capped a 6-0 run, and UT Arlington had cut the lead to 27-19. UT Arlington trailed by nine with 2:05 left, but Memphis closed the half strong to go up 45-31.

“We played as hard as we possibly could, but they were so talented, we just couldn’t match them for 40 minutes,” Cross said. “Even though we lost the game, I’ve never been more proud to be a Maverick.”

The Mavericks lose three players from this year’s squad. Senior guard Rod Epps was not only among the top 10 assist men in school history, he was the team’s best defender. Fan favorite and senior forward Larry Posey did the dirty work—diving for loose balls, rebounding and defending—in addition to averaging 8.3 points and 6.2 rebounds per game. Senior post Jermaine Griffin became one of only eight players in school history to finish his career with at least 1,000 points and 500 rebounds.

“It feels pretty special to accomplish this in our senior season and do something like this for the program,” Epps said. “Now the younger guys need to use this experience and keep making things better.”

Looking ahead

There’s reason for optimism in 2008-09. The Mavericks return Vereen on the inside and guard Rogér Guignard outside. Guignard, a junior-to-be, broke the single-season school record with 99 3-pointers.

Long, who was averaging 12.3 points per game before his season-ending thumb injury, is back, too. Returning for their junior seasons are Cardell Hunter, the team’s assist leader, and the steady and versatile Moffitt.

Trey Parker, a 6-foot-8 shot blocker, will be a sophomore next season, as will point guard Jeremy Smith, who had eight assists against Memphis. Mavericks coaches have been waiting a full season to put Marquez Haynes on the floor. The 6-foot-3 guard from Irving sat out last year after spending his first two seasons at Boston College.

“I like our lineup next year,” said Cross, who signed a contract extension through the 2011-12 season. “I think we’ll be quicker and really be able to score, especially getting Brandon back. Anthony Vereen, in my opinion, is the best scorer in the conference with his back to the basket. I couldn’t sleep the night after the Memphis game because I was thinking about what offense we’re going to run next season.”



— Darrin Scheid


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