March 12, 2012 3:34 pm ET by Ross Lancaster
Game #8-750: McNeese State Cowboys vs. Texas-Arlington MavericksMarch 8, 2012 9:33 pm
At a quarter after 10 p.m. Central Time on Thursday night, I looked at the Merrell Center scoreboard with 5:11 to go and briefly chose not to believe the 84-61 score in favor of McNeese State against UT-Arlington. Never mind that I had seen every possession with my own two eyes and watched the Cowboys nail #superhoop after #superhoop against a Mavericks defense that was a step off from the outset.
The 2011-12 UTA Mavericks have been, by any measure, the greatest team in school history. They won more games in conference and overall than any UTA team before, and did so by a wide margin. But as important as the raw number of games won was how they did it. The Mavericks could blow people out, and did regularly, but they were never out of a game they weren't performing their best in due their heart, skill, athleticism and ability to perform in the clutch. Until Thursday, the largest defeat the Mavs suffered was an 18-point loss to Texas in Austin. When you consider that the Mavs' next biggest loss was by 10 to Baylor, UTA had not lost to a team below the Red Line by double figures all season.
When I first attended UTA games this season, my goal was to get a few more games for the 800GP and document the team's move from the incomparable, old Texas Hall to the immaculate, new College Park Center. Something happened along the way: I was having fun watching UTA. A lot of fun. I loved how hard the Mavericks played and their up-tempo style. I could always count on seeing something special when I went to a game, whether it was the all-around play of senior leader LaMarcus Reed, the shooting ability of Bo Ingram or the above-the-rim game of Kevin Butler.
UTA's dream season was enough for me to change my conference tournament plans for the 800GP. Originally, I planned to solely attend the Sun Belt tournament in Hot Springs. I would get a hotel room for a couple nights with a friend or two and watch what the SBC called "Hot Hoops in Hot Springs". It would be my last season as a UNT student, and I wanted to experience that conference tournament for multiple days with fellow fans and students.
As the season progressed, and UTA was winning game after game, it seemed more likely that the Mavericks would have a March to remember than the Mean Green. At the time I decided to buy tickets for the Southland tournament, UNT was at 8-6 in the Sun Belt and UTA had yet to lose a conference game. There was also the fact that the Sun Belt played two men's quarterfinals at once, lessening the number of games that could count towards for the 800.
Thanks to the UNT athletic department's student bus, I was able to make it to the Sun Belt tournament for two UNT games in Hot Springs. On Tuesday morning, before heading on the bus to Hot Springs to watch the Mean Green play Western Kentucky in the Sun Belt final, I decided to imagine. There was a decent, if not good, chance that in a four-day period, both of the teams I had written the most about for the 800GP could be on their way to the NCAA Tournament and I would be in person at both bid-clinching games. If that were to happen, both UNT and UTA would get great publicity from the massive DFW media market, and each school's already healthy program would receive another boost. Perhaps it would even make Metroplex sports fans currently caught up in the NBA Mavericks' disappointing season and Rangers spring training notice mid-major basketball.
* * * * *
On the last Friday of January, I was reading a book I needed for the writing of my thesis at a Starbucks. I got to the end of a chapter and decided to check Twitter on my phone, as I commonly do. I saw a retweet from Kyle that read, "Your UTA Mavs Make An Appearance On The @midmajority 800 Games Project In The Last Game Of Texas Hall!" The tweet was from UTA assistant coach Zak Buncik, and linked to the piece I wrote about UTA's last game at Texas Hall against Stephen F. Austin the previous Saturday. Head coach Scott Cross also linked to it on his Twitter page. I was honored that multiple members of a Division I coaching staff took the time to read something I had written for the site.
After I wrote my piece about UTA's homecoming game against Texas State at College Park Center two weeks later, Buncik and Cross once again linked to the piece. Cross tweeted me a thank you for what I had written about the team and the program. I want to repeat that. A Division I head coach personally tweeted me to thank me for something I had written for the 800GP. I was humbled by their gratitude and wanted to see the Mavs excel even more for the rest of the season.
On Wednesday, in between the two afternoon quarterfinals at the Merrell Center, I saw Buncik standing beside fellow assistant Greg Young just above the lower seating bowl of the facility. I introduced myself and told him that I had written the pieces about UTA for the 800 Games Project. He stuck out his right hand and said, "What's up, brother?!", as if we had known each other for years. He talked about how much UTA appreciated the pieces on the site and we both wished that the program received more media attention in DFW for its 15-1 Southland season than it did. Buncik pointed out coach Cross in the second row of the lower bowl, and I introduced myself to the sixth-year head coach of the Mavericks. The very first thing Cross asked me was how many games we were up to in the project. I don't know for sure, but I don't think there are too many head coaches who would be so interested about the progress of what we're doing here. We proceeded to talk for 20 minutes about his team, Our Game and life.
That night, UTA smacked Nicholls State by 48. The date with a Saturday final and a chance at an NCAA Tournament bid seemed nearly inevitable. In the Mavs' way before that final was a McNeese State team that UTA clinched the regular season SLC title against on February 22. The regular season meeting was one of the most bi-polar games I can remember watching all year. UTA had a 27-point halftime lead against the Cowboys in Lake Charles before McNeese caught fire, figured out UTA's defense and grabbed a heap of offensive rebounds. The Cowboys ran out of time and lost by four. All told, McNeese scored 65 points in the final half of a 70-possession game. The failed comeback bid was the start of a four-game losing streak to close the regular season for the Cowboys, snapped with their overtime win in the SLC quarterfinals against UTSA.
Thursday night's game began as a continuation of the February contest, albeit with UTA wearing home whites and McNeese wearing an impossibly bright shade of yellow. The Cowboys jumped to an 11-2 lead before three minutes had been played. The early fast pace of the night's second game at the Merrell Center took some visual adjustment when compared to the largely drawn-out style of the first semi between Lamar and Stephen F. Austin.
The hot start for McNeese wasn't especially concerning at the time. I had seen UTA fall behind before in first halves. The Mavericks were always good for a sizeable run, and their style of play could force turnovers and lead to easy baskets in a hurry. When Bradley Gay converted a three-point play to cut the deficit to five at 15-10 around the 13-minute mark, I especially thought UTA would be fine. But warning signs were still present. At the 12-minute media timeout, Cross lit into his team, a contrast from his usual, more measured demeanor.
A crucial sequence came later in the first half with the score 28-22. McNeese hit three-pointers on three straight possessions, and two Rudy Turner free throws made it an 11-3 run to make the score 39-25 with 3:51 to go in the first half. UTA did a poor job of closing out shooters defensively, and many of McNeese's three-pointers came from great looks. The Cowboys had a 12-point halftime lead, but UTA fans and followers thought that the game was far from over.
The crowd featured a good amount of supporters from both schools and looked to be the best attended game of any in the sparsely populated tournament to that point. Part of the UTA student cheering section, the Wranglers, made the trip and were in their distinctive orange and blue overalls.
At the concession stand at halftime, I talked to one of the Wranglers. She said that they had come down on a bus from Arlington that afternoon, and would be heading back immediately after the game. This sounded very familiar. She went on to say how much fun the bus ride back would be. A quizzical look came upon my face and I queried, "That depends on if they come back, no?" The straight-haired brunette smiled at me, said, "I believe," turned to the counter and ordered her nachos.
At that moment, after such a quintessentially TMM interaction, I obviously believed the Mavericks would win.
The run was always coming, until it wasn't. As the second half began, Reed settled into a "get me the ball and get on my back" groove. He scored on drives, jumpers, threes and got to the line. All UTA had to do was get some consistent stops and it would be back in the game thanks once again to the leadership of Reed.
But McNeese never stopped scoring for more than a possession or two at a time, the threes kept coming, and the margin could never reach single figures. Yet, I still believed for the first eight minutes of the half.
With just under 12 minutes left in the game, doubt set in. The score was 63-50 when McNeese freshman Kevin Hardy picked up a deflection off the hands of Turner and hit a runner in the lane. Hardy stole the ensuing inbounds pass, drove, scored and was fouled. He converted the three-point play after the media timeout to bring up an 18-point deficit for the Mavericks.
The dagger came a few minutes later with McNeese up 73-56. A complete mess of a possession had Southland Player of the Year Patrick Richard on the right wing behind the three-point line as the shot clock was running down. He was closely guarded by Cameron Catlett, and shot a high arcing #superhoop from about 25 feet.
Swish. 20-point game.
The lead blew out to as much as 28 at one stage. The team that accomplished so much and dominated the conference during the regular season would not be going to the NCAA Tournament.
During the postgame handshake line, Reed was immobilized by emotion on the bench. While the season was not over as the Mavs had an automatic bid to the NIT, the loss meant the senior would end his career having never played in the NCAAs. Many of his teammates, and some of the Cowboys, went over to console him on their way back to the locker room. It's the kind of image you get used to seeing at this time of year, but tugs at your heartstrings nonetheless.
With UTA out of the SLC tournament, I decided to drive back to Dallas on Friday, the tournament's rest day. I attended eight games in two states in about 96 hours, and traveled in some form or fashion nearly 1,000 miles in that time period. This recap represents the last of those eight and my 20th overall. It may be my last, as no NCAA Tournament site is in Texas. The nearest tourney site to my home is in New Orleans for the Final Four, and there are multiple constraints that prevent me from being there.
So, if I'm going to 'I Will' another game, it will have to be a TCU home game against an Other 24 team in the CBI on a night I can do it. But if this was my last game this season, I'd like to thank everyone who has been a part of this project in any way, big or small. If you're a reader, I'd like to thank you as well.
Despite the fact that the NCAA Tournament dream ended in a loss for each of the teams I followed the most within a 48-hour period, my personal 800GP journey has been more fun and rewarding that I ever imagined possible.
|Hickory Picket Fences||27629|
|The Hopping Cats||21526|
|Under a Blood Red Line||10379|
|Jen Folds Five||6895|