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With upset wins over Texas and St. Mary’s, UT-Arlington making mark on national stage
- Updated: December 17, 2016
Texas-Arlington basketball has come a long way since the days when the program was on center stage.
The school used to host its games at Texas Hall Theater, which was, as its name suggests, an actual theater hall in Arlington–and according to a 2007 article written by Kyle Whelliston, then of ESPN, it was the largest theater stage west of the Mississippi River when it was built back in 1965.
When you watched their games on TV, you could see curtains behind the baskets. If you were there in person, you could choose to sit in a few rows of bleachers that were set up on stage behind the court, or you could sit in the actual auditorium, from the front row looking up, to the balcony.
Sports Illustrated called it the best place to watch a basketball game back in 1997, but not everyone loved it.
Former Sam Houston State coach Bob Marlin joked about the orchestra pit off to the side.
“I used to tell people, until they covered it up, you chase a loose ball and you’ll end up with the trombones,” he said.
Current Texas-Arlington head coach Scott Cross, who played for the Mavericks from 1995-98 and then led the school to its only NCAA Tournament appearance in 2008, doesn’t seem to miss it.
“Oh, that was the worst facility in all of college basketball probably,” Cross said. “It was a great home-court advantage. But if you’re trying to recruit to that…I mean, we would try our very best to never show it to recruits unless they asked. We wouldn’t even go by the gym.”
It’s been a few years since the curtain call at Texas Hall, and the Mavericks now hoop in the beautiful College Park Center, which opened in 2012.
Cross says it’s part of the reason why UTA has become a legitimate mid-major force.
“I’ve been everywhere from Kansas to Kentucky to Minnesota to Arkansas to Oklahoma, and [our arena] has everything that those have. The only difference is that theirs holds 20,000-plus, and ours holds 7,700. But in terms of how nice it is, you’re not going to find anything nicer than what we have,” he said.
The product on the court is beginning to reflect the new $77 million arena, too.
The Mavericks are 9-3 this season, and winners of eight straight, including a 72-61 win at Texas on November 29, the first win over the Longhorns in program history.
As you can imagine, that was a pretty big deal for the University of Texas at Arlington.
“I think for our fans and our alumni, if there was one team they would want to beat, it would be UT,” Cross said. “Probably after that it’d be North Texas, but I think Texas, most of our fans, that’s the one.”
“It was probably the most gratifying win you could possibly have, because we’ve always been the little brother of UT, and you know obviously, they have a lot of money and all those types of things.”
The Mavs also outclassed No. 12 Saint Mary’s, 65-51, in California last week, the school’s first-ever win over a ranked team.
This UTA squad is deep, and balanced, with five players averaging between 8 and 13 points per game. They’re led by 6-9 senior forward Kevin Hervey, who checks in at 13.5 points and 6.4 rebounds per.
The Arlington native was the Sun Belt’s Preseason Player of the Year, and he’s been every bit as good as anticipated. Hervey went for 18 and 10 in the win over Texas, then put up 21 and 10 in a 77-61 dismantling of North Texas, earning him Lou Henson National Player of the Week honors.
If that wasn’t impressive enough, junior point guard Erick Neal, who scored 13 points and dished out 8 assists in the win over St. Mary’s, earned the award the next week.
The 5-10 guard from Dallas currently ranks seventh in the country at 7 assists per game. Cross said that when Neal does the little things, “he’s one of the most dynamic, best point guards in the country.”
Both players, along with 6-2 senior Jalen Jones (13 ppg) were highly-rated in the state of Texas. Neal was ranked as the 18th-best player in the state by TexasHoops.com, and 143rd nationally. Jones, who’s from Cedar Hill, led McLennan Community College to a 27-3 record before transferring to UTA.
Cross says his staff focuses on area players first, and with nine Texans on the roster, it’s clear that’s enough to help them into contention in the Sun Belt. It’s also clear that the Mavs can compete nationally, and if they’re fortunate enough to reach the NCAA Tournament, they’re going to be a handful.
“We kind of pride ourselves in doing things that have never been done before,” Cross said. “For me, I love kicking in that wall.”
They might not be playing at Texas Hall any more, but if the Mavs can keep kicking until March, there’s one more stage they might get to play on.
The national one.