It wasn't until my freshman year in high school that I realized what a big deal homecoming was in Texas. In the Lone Star state, every high school girl has to have a mum to wear on a homecoming Friday, a construct of varying lengths attached to the front of a shirt or top. It features a silk flower in the middle and any number of ribbons, bells, trinkets, stuffed animals and general pieces of flair coming down from the bottom of the flower. The boys typically wear a garter, a smaller version of the mum that goes around the arm and can be just as intricate. For those of us who didn't love arts and crafts time as young children and were transplants to Texas, this homecoming tradition represented a puzzling eyesore. But this was something that was non-negotiable. When I asked my senior year homecoming date if we could just skip the mum/garter process, I was met with a "Do not pass Go, do not collect $200" glare.
Other parts of the Texas high school homecoming experience were more in line with what I imagine the rest of the country does: watch a football game on Friday, go to dinner and have a dance on Saturday and then hang out afterwards with friends/dates/girlfriends. In college, when I arrived at North Texas, there were actually years where I forgot what weekend homecoming fell on until a few days prior. I was usually working on Fridays covering high school football in the Dallas area, and couldn't participate in the beginning of the weekend festivities even if I had wanted to. My friends and I at UNT were somewhat apathetic towards the football program and never went to the homecoming game itself on the Saturday. Nonetheless, homecoming was borne out of football in fall, especially in the state of Texas. Mixing homecoming with any other sport would be mixing oil and water. You just don't do it.
The first home game I could attend at UT-Arlington's brand new College Park Center was this past Saturday against Texas State. I learned upon acquiring my ticket I learned that the day's game was UTA's homecoming. UTA discontinued its football program in 1985, citing hemorrhaging funds and poor attendance. However, I didn't remember that there would be a homecoming parade before the game until about halfway through my drive to Arlington. Thinking I had allotted too much time to take pictures of the new facility, I could briefly visit the parade before getting any number of angles of College Park Center.
As I walked up to the parade, I was approached by a group of very energetic students and/or fans who gave me some beads. It was then that I realized, "Aren't these people celebrating a mid-major basketball team? At a HOMECOMING? IN TEXAS?"
This wasn't something that didn't have a place, this was freaking awesome. Who the heck am I to have such a parochial attitude? Haven't I always loved basketball more than football?
Now, there was a certain anachronistic quality about watching a homecoming parade next to a basketball arena on the coldest day of the season in February in Texas, but that just added to the unique nature of it. It wasn't until I read Joe Wright's recap on Saturday that I realized that my childhood mid-major team, College of Charleston, also celebrates homecoming at a basketball game. I guess I wasn't noticing things like homecoming back when I was watching CofC stars like Anthony Johnson and Sedric Webber.
I was enjoying the parade so much that I eschewed the pictures I was going to take of the outside of the arena for some of the parade.
With about 40 minutes left until the game, I decided to explore the inside of the facility. This was necessitated by the fact that my uncovered hands had become too cold to tweet on my phone. AND AS EVERYBODY KNOWS, ON #ALLCAPSDAY, YOU MUST TWEET.
I was blown away once I got inside the new arena. College Park Center is pristine with concourses like a new NBA arena, but small enough to where every seat in the house is a good one.
My seat for the game was on the second row, at floor level, just behind the courtside seats. Somehow, I was able to get the tickets for free by simply going on to the College Park Center website. I don't know if I was the beneficiary of one of those glitches you sometimes see with airline websites, or if the university is trying to get the facility filled for its opening men's games. Whatever the case, I was able to get free tickets just feet from the court for three separate games at a school I don't attend.
UTA President James Spaniolo passed by my seat several times before and during the game. To me, Spaniolo deserves the utmost credit for making the College Park Center dream a reality. Since the 1960s, there has been a desire at UTA to have a special events center, but it wasn't until Spaniolo arrived in Arlington that those plans truly were set into motion. In 2004, right around the time Spaniolo took over, UTA students approved a $2 per hour tuition increase should the university ever reinstate a football program. I have to wonder if other universities' leadership, especially in Texas, would have taken the vote as a mandate to start football. Spaniolo, while never ruling out football, has also said that the school can be a big player athletically with men's basketball as the marquee program. The university is also raising its academic profile by spending more money on research. There's a different vibe around the UTA campus now, and Spaniolo's vision is one of the reasons why.
It's incredible how UTA may be having its best season in school history in the same year that the university's centerpiece is opened. Coming into Saturday's game, the Mavericks had won a school record 14 consecutive games and were one of six teams in the country to have an undefeated conference record. After Murray State's loss on Thursday night, the 14-game win streak is the second longest in the country and the longest below the Red Line. UTA is outscoring conference foes by 0.20 points per possession. Only Syracuse, Belmont, Bucknell, Kentucky and Davidson are more dominant on a per-possession basis in their respective leagues.
I had no idea UTA would be this good this season, and apparently, neither did the Southland coaches or SIDs. Each group projected a third-place finish in the West division for the Mavs. Perhaps I should have realized how good UTA could be when they slapped UNT with a 32-0 first half run when the teams met in November en route to a 33-point win.
Coming into the game, Texas State was just 2-9 in Southland play, and had yet to win a road game all season. The main silver lining for the Bobcats was that they only lost to the Mavericks by three in San Marcos. From a fan's perspective, the game promised to be an up-tempo one, with UTA and Texas State playing two of the nation's fastest 15 tempos on the season. Five years ago, with the same two head coaches, the two teams played a 92-possession game in regulation with 213 total points scored. Paul Westhead approves.
The Mavs hit the first basket of the game in the first minute, a #superhoop, and Texas State coach Doug Davalos promptly called timeout. I can't remember ever seeing a coach call a first minute timeout. Things didn't get any better for Davalos' team, as UTA went up 10 at 16-6 by the under 12 timeout. The lead hovered around 10 for the rest of the first 20 minutes and was 10 at the long break. While not pictured, the man across the aisle from me was particularly in the spirit of #ALLCAPSDAY, yelling out timeless staples such as, "YOU'RE THE WORST REF EVER!" and "HOW CAN YOU MISS THAT CALL?".
At halftime, the homecoming court ceremony was conducted.
FANS WERE VERY HAPPY ABOUT BASKETBALL AS A DANCE PARTY BROKE OUT.
The second half started with UTA again solid on offense, especially in transition, and great on defense. For the game, Texas State was held to just 29% from the floor. The Mavericks kept the lead around 15 for most of the half and won by 20. Kevin Butler was outstanding, with 17 points and 12 rebounds for his second double-double on the season. LaMarcus Reed and Bo Ingram are the team's top scorers, and each was in double figures with 18 and 13, respectively.
In the second half, some of the homecoming court nominees sat in my section to talk to friends. I was able to meet two of them, Alaina and Jeff.
Alaina was a nominee for queen, and Jeff was crowned king at halftime. Like me, they were very impressed with the arena and the team. Jeff said that the arena and the team's success had "made him a college basketball fan". He also said that the university had never had a homecoming in his time as a student quite like the one they were able to have this year at and around College Park Center.
After the game, Reed took to the microphone to thank everyone for coming out.
Skeptics will say that Texas is the one place where you need a football program to have a successful intercollegiate athletics program. For this season at the very least, UT-Arlington is showing that basketball can yet be a winner in the one of the most football-driven states.
at TEXAS-ARLINGTON 73, TEXAS STATE 53 02/11/2012
TEXAS STATE 9-15 (2-9) -- J. Bowman 2-11 1-4 6; M. Staff 3-7 1-1 7; E. Rios 0-4 2-2 2; W. Davis 4-10 2-2 11; R. Koenen 5-10 2-2 16; T. Jones 1-8 0-0 2; B. Ybarra 1-4 1-2 4; V. Jones 1-2 0-0 3; G. Ball 0-2 2-2 2; N. Hinton 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 17-58 11-15 53. TEXAS-ARLINGTON 19-5 (11-0) -- K. Butler 7-12 3-5 17; L. Reed III 7-15 2-4 18; B. Ingram 5-10 0-0 13; J. Reves 2-6 0-0 4; C. Catlett 3-6 0-0 6; S. White-Miller 4-5 0-0 9; B. Gay 1-4 1-2 3; K. Gruszecki 0-4 0-0 0; B. Edwards 0-0 0-0 0; S. Lagerson 1-1 1-2 3; N. Osbourne 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 30-64 7-13 73.
Three-point goals: TXST 8-24 (B. Ybarra 1-2; J. Bowman 1-3; M. Staff 0-1; T. Jones 0-4; R. Koenen 4-6; V. Jones 1-2; W. Davis 1-6), UTA 6-24 (L. Reed 2-7; K. Butler 0-1; C. Catlett 0-1; B. Gay 0-1; B. Ingram 3-7; S. White-Miller 1-2; K. Gruszecki 0-4; N. Osbourne 0-1); Rebounds: TXST 25 (M. Staff 8), UTA 48 (K. Butler 12); Assists: TXST 12 (V. Jones 4), UTA 13 (S. White-Miller 5); Total Fouls -- TXST 17, UTA 15; Fouled Out: TXST-None; UTA-None.