March 9, 2017
NEW ORLEANS - Second-seed UTA claimed its first-ever Sun Belt Championship win and advanced into the conference semifinals after knocking off No. 10 South Alabama, 65-53, on Thursday night at Lakefront Arena.
The Lady Mavericks improved to 22-7 overall on the season and swept a three-game slate in the series with South Alabama (11-20). UTA improved to 1-2 all-time in the SBC postseason tournament and won its first tournament game since 2010 in the Southland Conference.
UTA will take on Troy in the semifinals on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. on ESPN3. The Lady Mavs and Trojans split the season series with each taking the home matchup.
Cierra Johnson finished with a game-high 20 points to lead UTA as she nipped Rebekah VanDijk, who had 19. UTA featured an impressive performance at the line as it finished 24-27, knocking down its first 15 shots from the charity stripe.
Leading by as much as 13 points in the second half, South Alabama didn't go quietely and trimmed the deficit down to just one point midway through the fourth. UTA was able to hit its defensive stride and forced four turnovers over the last two minutes and held the Jags to just 2-of-9 shooting down the stretch.
UTA shook off any questions of first-game jitters with a hot start to the matchup. The Lady Mavs knocked down four of their first five shots to force an early South Alabama timeout just four minutes into the game. The lead pushed above double figures right out of the break with VanDijk finding success inside, she helped UTA to a first quarter that saw the team shoot 70 percent from the field.
The early goings of the second quarter slowed the scoreboard down with neither team being able to find the rhythm that was displayed in the opening 10 minutes. Both teams were without a field goal for a three-minute stretch, but UTA built a 12-point lead with four consecutive free throws.
South Alabama made a late charge to trim the deficit down on a 5-0 run, but it was Christina Devers that gave UTA a 10-point lead at the break on a banked-in 3-pointer with seconds remaining on the clock.
A scoring drought from the Jaguars helped the Lady Mavs to their biggest lead of the game midway through at 13 points, but South Alabama chipped things back to a six-point UTA advantage after the third. UTA couldn't find its shot, missing on six of its final seven shots of the quarter. South Alabama took advantage and jumped to a 9-0 run.
Johnson was able to give the Lady Mavs a quick answer, putting in a jumper to hold its lead going to the final 10 minutes.
The momentum stayed on South Alabama's side in the first two minutes of the fourth. The Jags knocked down a 3-pointer and followed it up with a jumper to trim the deficit down to just one.
UTA responded right back from a shot from beyond the arc by Aysia Evans to go back by six. However, it was short lived with a trey from the other end.
VanDijk and Johnson each knocked down 10 free throws through the final four minutes of the contest with the team-high in scoring switching back-and-forth at each chance.
Leading by double figures for much of the first half, South Alabama had a 5-0 run that trimmed the deficit down to just seven points. With the UTA offense unable to find an open shooter with just seconds on the clock, Devers was able to make something out of nothing, with a little bit of luck, as her 3-pointers banked in at the buzzer to give UTA a 32-22 lead at halftime.
With South Alabama on the heels of UTA late in the fourth, it was a pair of plays by Cierra Johnson that broke away from the Jags. Johnson picked up a turnover on the in-bounds pass for an easy lay in, and then following Ericka Mattingly's steal, put in another lay in for a quick 4-0 that sent the lead back above a single possession as it was the closest UTA would get on the night.
UTA was just 5-of-25 from 3-point land, while South Alabama was 9-of-10, picking up four from Genesis Perrymond. ... UTA outscored USA 22-8 in the paint. ... UTA out-rebounded the Jags 37-32, with a 9-1 advance over the last two minutes.
UTA advances into the Sun Belt semifinals to take on the Winner of No. 3 Troy and No. 11 Arkansas State, who play in the day's finale at 7:30 p.m. The game is scheduled to tip at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday.
The 2017 Sun Belt Conference Men's and Women's Basketball Championships are scheduled for a week of March Madness in the Big Easy. New Orleans will once again be home to the two championships that will take place at Lakefront Arena from March 7-12 and ticket books can now be purchased from your school's ticket office. For more information, visit the Sun Belt Conference's championship central websites - Men's Championship - Women's Championship - and be sure to follow the #FunBelt on social media - @SunBelt.