Looking for a lovable underdog and possible future bracket-buster this holiday season? Put the University of Texas at Arlington on your shopping list.
“If they haven’t, I don’t know what’s wrong with them,” junior forward Kevin Hervey said the other day from the team bus, as UTA returned from its triumphant trip to California and Saint Mary’s. “We come out with something to prove every single day.”
Take trying to share the stage in the Lone Star State with Texas. The Mavericks were 0-11 all-time. But not anymore. UTA 72, Texas 61.
“I thought this was the year that if we were ever going to do it, it would happen,” coach Scott Cross said. “We’ve always been looked at as the little brother of Texas. I knew for our alumni and fans and school, it was going to be absolutely amazing to do that.”
Or take the Mavericks’ history against ranked teams. A nice round 0-28. But not anymore. UTA 65, Saint Mary’s 51.
And it was no fluke. Saint Mary’s was third in the nation in shooting but was defensed into a 31.4 percentage on its home court. The Gaels were second in the nation in fewest turnovers at nine a game but coughed the ball up 16 times.
That made seven wins in a row for 8-3 UTA, with all the losses coming in the same week on a road swing through Minnesota, Florida Gulf Coast and Arkansas while Hervey was still trying to get his form back after knee surgery. Plus, Cross said the defense has solidified. It looked that way at Saint Mary’s, anyway.
“It means the world,” Hervey said of the recent doings. “The Texas game was probably one of the biggest wins in our school’s history for the fans. The Saint Mary’s game was the biggest win for us. Words can’t even describe it. It’s surreal.”
Indeed, the Mavericks have learned what Cinderellas must: ”You get out there and realize they’re not better than you are,” Hervey said. “We play the players on the floor. We don’t play against the name of the team across their jerseys.”
The leading scorer and his repeat injury
Hervey, who had 18 points against Texas and 15 against Saint Mary’s, was preseason Sun Belt player of the year. That’s not bad for a guy who played only 16 games last season, but that was enough to know. He was rolling along at 18 points and nearly 10 rebounds a game when he went down with a torn ACL. The senior-high-school season he lost to a knee injury was suddenly a repeat.
“If you have anything taken away from you, it means more whenever you get it back. But, it’s happened to me before, so I understand completely how this works,” he said.
Getting back is one thing. Conquering the natural fear of it happening again and playing with a free mind is another.
He is averaging 13.5 points and six rebounds, but he still takes practices off when the knee swells.
“I still don’t think he has enough confidence in his knee to go in for offensive rebounds and blocking out and those kind of things,” Cross said. “But when he has that ball in his hands, I think he’s about as confident as anybody I’ve ever seen.”
Confidence? Hervey’s cousin, Lencola Sullivan, must have a bunch of it. She was Miss Arkansas of 1980 and in the top five at the Miss America pageant.
The one silver lining in his injury last season was forcing other Mavericks to step up. All five starters came back.
Jalen Jones is the second leading scorer, and Cross said of Erick Neal: “When he plays with a hot motor, I don’t think there is a better point guard anywhere.”
So, no surprise UTA was picked to win the Sun Belt—the league that sent Little Rock out to shock Purdue last March in the NCAA Tournament and Georgia State to take down Baylor the March before.
Ah, the tournament. UTA has been once, in 2008.
“That’s our dream,” Hervey said.
Coach Cross: A UTA Legacy
“I’ll have that thought, and then, I’ll try to block it out and focus on getting better today,” Cross said. “Sometimes when I start looking at the end of the road, I lose focus. The guys lose focus.”
Cross was coach in 2008. He has been at UTA nearly forever, 38 miles down the road from where he grew up in Garland.
First, he started as a player in the 1990s — leading the Southland Conference in 3-point shooting — then became an assistant for eight years and, now, is the head man since 2006. He is the only coach in school history with a winning career record. Think seeing UTA break down barriers means something to him?
Then there was his academic record. A spotless 4.0 in marketing as an undergrad.
“My brother set the bar on that. He had a 4.0 at Austin College which is one of the toughest schools in the country. I was just trying to live up to expectations,” Cross said. “I probably got a little bit smarter on how to pick professors.”
Now, he has a program on the move with historic wins, which is why the Mavericks were eager to get back to campus from Saint Mary’s.
“I think there’ll be a little bit of a buzz, but it’s finals week,” Cross said. “Unfortunately we don’t have any home games right now, but hopefully we can just keep this thing going.”
Remember these guys. They might be heard from again later.