Eye on the prize

   Arlington is a great place to call home. Families have known this for generations. That is why there are so many great neighborhoods in Arlington. Suddenly sports teams are proving that this is a great city to call home for them, too. The Rangers have won back-to-back American League West titles, the Cowboys have won two of the past three NFC East titles and have a chance to be the best team in the National Football League. And then there is the local basketball team, the Mavericks of UTA. They have spent the past couple of seasons shocking the world.

Last year, the Mavs beat Memphis and Ohio State on the road to capture the attention of the basketball world. This year, the first two months of the season have been downright historic. It all started on Nov. 29, when the Mavs went to Austin to play the Longhorns for the 11th time in school history. All 11 had been at the Frank Erwin Center, and all had been losses. Oh, the Mavs got close last year. They took the Longhorns to overtime before losing 80-73.

This season, the Mavs started slowly against Texas and proved it is not how you start but how you finish. UTA led by as many as 16 and held on to win 72-61. Needless to say, the Mavs were excited after the game. “To say the least, I’m over-ecstatic right now,” Guard Drew Charles said following the victory. “It’s a game I’ve been waiting three years to win.”

It’s a game the program had been waiting 27 years to win. The two teams first played on Nov. 28, 1989. The Horns won those first 11 games in the series by an average of some 22 points. Twenty seven years and one day after the first meeting, hundreds of Mavs fans chanted “U-T-A” in the stunned silence of the burnt orange Erwin Center.

Head coach Scott Cross knew this was possible, and he knew it was special. “This will definitely go down as one of the biggest wins in the history of our basketball program,” Cross says.

Little did he know that 10 days later his team would win a game that was as big or bigger than the upset of Texas. Last month, the Mavs were in Moraga, Calif., take on the 12th ranked team in America. The Gaels of St Mary’s College were undefeated.

Still, before the game, Cross told his troops that they had a chance to make history. “He was like, ‘This would be the biggest win in school history,’” guard Erick Neal recalls. “That just added fire to it and made us want to play harder.”

They played hard, indeed – especially on defense. “Our guys probably played as good of basketball as we could have, especially defensively,” Cross says. “Watching them (SMC) on video, I honestly thought it was the best offensive team I’ve ever seen in my life.”

The Mavs beat that team 65-51! In the process, UTA snapped an 0-28 drought against ranked teams. The Mavs first played a Top 25 team back in 1967. They lost 28 in a row to the best of the best in college basketball. “It’s a humongous deal,” Guard Kevin Hervey says. “We’re excited, and hopefully we can build on this.”

That is the challenge now. Last year the Mavs started 13-3, including those wins over Ohio State and Memphis. Then Hervey hurt his ACL. With him out, the Mavs went 11-8 the rest of the way to finish 24-11.

Hervey has been named the Sun Belt Conference Preseason Player of the Year. With him healthy, the Mavs have a chance to keep it going throughout conference play and possibly beyond.

In the first 46 years of UTA basketball, the Mavs made one trip to a postseason tournament. In the 11 years under Cross, they have made a tournament four times. Twice they have made it to the “big dance” known as the NCAA Tournament. They could do it again this year; if they win their conference they get an automatic bid to the tournament.

How great would that be? If the Mavs follow the Rangers and Cowboys and win the regular season crown, they’ll enjoy a postseason. That’s where the fun is, and clearly Arlington is where the fun begins. What a great place to call home!

 

Sports columnist John Rhadigan is an anchor for the Fox Sports Southwest television network.