With upset wins over Texas and St. Mary’s, UT-Arlington making mark on national stage

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–with the largest stage west of the Mississippi when it was built back in 1965.

Texas Hall Theater was arguably the most unique venue in the country when the Mavs played there from 1962-2012. (Photo courtesy: The Shorthorn/University of Texas-Arlington)

Texas Hall was arguably the most unique venue in the country when the Mavs played there from 1962-2012. (Photo courtesy: The Shorthorn/University of Texas-Arlington)

If 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 auditorium, like you were at a play or watching the Rockettes.

Sports Illustrated called it the best place to watch a basketball game back in 1997. It certainly may have been the most unique, but not everyone loved it.

Former Sam Houston State coach Bob Marlin joked about the orchestra pit below the court/stage.

“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 coached the school to its only NCAA Tournament appearance in 2008, doesn’t seem to miss it.

Texas-Arlington coach Scott Cross yells to his team during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Ohio State in Columbus, Ohio, Friday, Nov. 20, 2015. Texas-Arlington won 73-68. (AP Photo/Paul Vernon)

Cross has been with the Texas-Arlington program as a player or coach since 1995 . (AP Photo/Paul Vernon)

“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 curtains closed at Texas Hall, and the Mavericks now hoop in the beautiful but perhaps less-charming 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 catching up with 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. That was 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.”

Even bigger in college hoops fans’ eyes may have been the outclassing of 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 14 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.

"We didn't even understand how good Kevin was going to be," head coach Scott Cross said of 6-9 senior forward Kevin Hervey, who leads the team in scoring at 13 ppg. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

“We didn’t even understand how good Kevin was going to be,” head coach Scott Cross said of 6-9 senior forward Kevin Hervey, who leads the team in scoring at 13.5 ppg. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

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 as the best mid-major performer in the country.

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, followed up by winning the award the next week.

The 5-10 guard from Dallas currently ranks seventh nationally with 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, and 143rd nationally. Jones, who’s from Cedar Hill, became a star at McLennan Community College, leading the Highlanders 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 contend 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 taking the elevated court at Texas Hall any more, but if the Mavs can keep kicking until March, there’s one more big stage they might get to play on.

The national one.

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