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Jermaine Griffin and fellow seniors Rod Epps and Larry Posey hope to win SLC Tournament in final year.
Jermaine Griffin and fellow seniors Rod Epps and Larry Posey hope to win SLC Tournament in final year.

March 15, 2008

KATY, Texas- - UT Arlington men's basketball coach Scott Cross is getting a second chance.

The last time the Mavericks advanced to the SLC Tournament championship game, Cross was a UTA player on a team that nearly became the first to make the NCAA Tournament. Maverick fans remember a 3-point shot by Bill Washington from the left wing that swished through the hoop and would have send the game into overtime.

It was the 1998 SLC Tournament championship against top-seed Nicholls State. The shot didn't count. Officials waved off the bucket, saying that it came just after the buzzer. Replays showed the refs got it right, but that didn't make it any easier for Cross and his teammates to take.

"We should have won that game," Cross said. "We had them down and just didn't finish it off."

Ten years later, Cross is back with a chance to lead the Mavericks to the NCAA tournament in his second year as head coach. No. 7 seed UT Arlington (21-11) takes on seventh-seeded Northwestern State (15-17) at Noon on Sunday at the Merrell Center in Katy, Texas.

A victory would give the Mavericks a school-record 21st victory and first NCAA Tournament berth. It would be the first postseason of any kind of the men's program since the 1980-81 team advanced to the National Invitation Tournament.

"The feeling is about the same now as it was when I was a player," Cross said, heading into the title game. "I might want it even more now because I feel almost like a parent to all these players, so I feel responsible for their success. And I want so badly for our fans to experience something UTA has never done before."

To reach this point, the Mavericks have enjoyed some of the highest points in the program's history - then endured some of the lowest.

UTA started the season with eight consecutive victories, including road wins against Wichita State and Arkansas-Little Rock. The Mavericks also defeated 2007 NCAA Tournament team North Texas.



The Mavericks climbed to No. 14 in the College Insider Mid-Major Top 25. Then, a road loss against TCU did more than just hand UTA its first defeat. Second-leading scorer Brandon Long, who was averaging 11.3 points per game, injured his thumb and was forced to wear a cast for six weeks. UTA coaches made the decision to work through the rest of the season without Long and apply for a medical redshirt.

Without Long, UTA lost three of its next four games.

That included two losses to open the Southland Conference season. Two weeks later, losses against Sam Houston State and Stephen F. Austin left the Mavericks fighting for positioning in the SLC Tournament rather than battling for a conference title.

A three-game losing streak from Feb. 14 to Feb. 20 suddenly mean UTA would need wins down the stretch just to make the conference tournament.

"We really struggled without Brandon, and as coaches, we were trying everything we could to find the right combination and put the right guys in the right roles," Cross said. "The guys never stopped working hard, but we just weren't the same team. Then, the game against Stephen F. Austin on the road really gave us a lift. Our players started believing in each other again and are performing now with the same kind of swagger we had early in the season. I think we're playing our best basketball right now."

The March 1 game against Stephen F. Austin - a 75-65 victory on the road - clinched a playoff spot for UTA and handed the Lumberjacks their first home loss of the season.

"When we play well and our perimeter players are knocking down shots, it makes things a lot easier for our post players, and it makes us a hard team to defend," said junior forward Anthony Vereen, UTA's leading scorer at 13.2 points per game.

In the SLC Tournament first round, the Mavericks got a career-high 24 points from Rod Epps and 20 from fellow senior Jermaine Griffin to knock off Lamar, 81-75.

Friday night against Sam Houston State, it was Vereen's 20 points and five 3-pointer from Rog'er Guignard that led the way.

Those victories also served as confidence builders; since March 1, the Mavericks have defeated East Division champion Lamar, West Division champion Stephen F. Austin and No. 3 seed Sam Houston State.

Standing in the way Sunday is a Northwestern State team that has now qualified for the title game four consecutive years. Two years ago, the Demons beat Iowa in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

The Demons defeated the Mavericks, 86-82, earlier in the season in Natchitoches, La. Trey Gilder leads Northwestern State with 16.1 points per game, third-best in the SLC. The Demons made it to the championship by beating Southeastern Louisiana and top-seed Stephen F. Austin.

"It feels so good to be in this situation," said Guignard, who has hit 17 of his past 32 3-pointers. "We're playing with a lot of confidence."


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