ARLINGTON, Texas - Sometimes it just feels good to be home. For junior guard Crystal Allen, it took having to face sitting out a year for her to return where she felt comfortable.
After transferring to UTA from Seattle U in the middle of the 2015-16 season, Allen wasn't eligible to play until after the fall semester concluded, so when her first shot bounced off the rim instead of going through the net, she was excused as the cobwebs of in-game action had to be brushed aside. Since then, the Fort Worth native has been lights out and an effective piece of a Lady Maverick squad sitting in second place as they head out for a two-game trip in Georgia.
"I really wanted to be closer to home," Allen said of why she chose to come back to the DFW area. "Whenever I came for a visit, the coaches were so family oriented and that is what you really want in coaches. That is where I am going to spend the next few years with, so to have that in a coaching staff is even better."
Allen was a WAC All-Newcomer Team selection after a standout freshman season for the Redhawks where she averaged 9.8 points per game and shot 40.5 percent from 3-point land. The success garnered her a spot on the WAC Preseason Second Team to begin her sophomore season, but something just wasn't right for Allen as the season got underway. Allen missed seeing her family in the stands and having her mom be able to watch her play.
Facing the difficulty of not being able to play in a live-action game was a challenge that the junior guard wasn't expecting to be as hard as it was.
"I got to practice and stuff like that and I knew that I'd be able to practice but every game came and I was sitting on the bench dressed up in my warm-up suit," Allen said. " It was hard, and sitting out a whole year was hard and I never thought I'd do something like that. It is different, people think you can work out and work out for so long and jump back into a game, but it has been so long since you actually played in a game, and that is totally different."
Allen finally got to step onto the court on Dec. 18 against Texas A&M-Commerce and the energy she would bring for the remainder of the season was seen straight away. The guard has averaged 8.5 points per game in just 13 games played as well as earning a starting role for the Lady Mavs, starting the last eight games.
"She is a great scorer," UTA coach Krista Gerlich said. "She has a scorer's mentality and can score in a bunch of different ways. She can really shoot the basketball, which has been nice to utilize that outside shooting a little bit. She is just a gym rat and that is what I love about her and what I love in what she brings to the team. She loves to play and just loves to compete. Having that mentality and passion for the game spreads. You can always find her in a gym."
The offensive prowess of what Allen brings to the team has been even more prevalent as she settles into the UTA attack. She's scored in double figures in four of the last five games and seven times in just 13 games played. Over the last three, Allen is averaging 14.0 points per game along with three treys in each.
While the offensive success has been starting to comeback for Allen, an area of the game in which she is working to improve has been the defensive side of the ball. She has great role models in junior guard Cierra Johnson and freshman point guard Ericka Mattingly. The pair are in the top of the nation in steals per game and have helped UTA achieve a top-10 statistical ranking in turnovers forced at more than 21 per game.
"As far as basketball goes, I've thought of defense as the most important part," Allen said. "The offense will come with good defense. I have been talking with the coaches about playing defense, working with the post on how to improve it with my size. It is that aspect that I want to work on the most."
"It is really helpful because it starts in practice. I really pay attention to how (Ericka and Cierra) practice and how they get steals. I watch when they get a steal so that the next time I get in I can try to match that and work how they do.
The unique challenge that Gerlich had with Allen was not only did she have to sit out a season, a standard practice as a student-athlete transfers schools within Division I, she had to incorporate Allen into a team that went through the nonconference with a 7-3 record.
Gerlich pointed to the importance of keeping players engaged as the hardest part of a player that is sitting out, whether it be a standard season, or in Allen's case a midseason addition."
"She has done a great job responding," Gerlich said. "It is very difficult this year because we are very talented and very deep. It is hard to find her a spot to where it doesn't mess up our chemistry. She did a great job in learning certain positions for us so that she could play more than one spot. She is very hard on herself, so that is difficult because she wanted to do it the right way immediately. We had to reassure her that I was letting her play through some things to figure it out."
As Allen has inched closer to being back to her high-scoring self, the team has responded with a Sun Belt record that finds itself in a tie for second, battling for a position amongst the top four to earn a bye in March's Sun Belt Championship Tournament in New Orleans.
This week's trip gives UTA an opportunity to improve on its 16-6 overall record and get the 10th win in SBC play. The trek begins at Georgia Southern on Thursday at 6 p.m. CT, before the brief two-game road trip concludes Saturday against Georgia State.
Matchup Notes: UTA is 4-0 all-time against Georgia Southern, including 2-0 in Statesboro, Ga. ... The Lady Mavs are 9-1 against the Georgia schools since the teams joined the Sun Belt. ... UTA went to OT with GS in the road meeting last season before a 12-0 OT run ended the threat. ... UTA is 4-0 in the eastern time zone this season, winning at the SHU Thanksgiving Classic and sweeping a trip through the Carolina's in January.
WBB: Meet Lady Maverick senior Shelby Richards
WBB: VanDijk Stars as Lady Mavs Top ULM
WBB: Rebekah VanDijk, history made
WBB: Allen's free throws upend Cajuns in final seconds
2006-07 Lady Mavs Land into Hall of Honor
WBB: UTA back at CPC to host Ragin' Cajuns