March 7, 2017
No. 2 UTA vs. No. 10 South Alabama - Thursday, 5 p.m.
New Orleans, La. - Lakefront Arena - Tournament Central
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ARLINGTON, Texas - The destination for UTA women's basketball has been on dancing since the team's first practice last summer. This weekend, the Lady Mavericks will have their opportunity to punch their ticket to the dance.
UTA travels to New Orleans for the 2017 Sun Belt Conference Championship tournament with eyes set on claiming the league crown. UTA is 21-7 overall and finished the conference slate 14-4 to earn the league's second seed. UTA will take on the winner of No. 7 Georgia State and No. 10 South Alabama on Thursday at 5 p.m. at Lakefront Arena on ESPN3.
"They had the sights set on the championship from the word go", UTA coach Krista Gerlich said. "We had a few hiccups, but I really like the way they stayed together and continued to improve and have been playing some of their best basketball of late and it's an exciting time for basketball at UTA."
UTA garnered several postseason awards with junior Cierra Johnson being named the SBC Defensive Player of the Year - the third all-time for UTA - as well as a selection to the league's All-SBC second team. Rebekah VanDijk earned her second consecutive All-SBC first team selection after leading the team in scoring and rebounding.
"It's something I've been wanting all along," Johnson said of being named the Defensive Player of the Year. "My coaches have been pushing me to be the best defensive player that I can be. I honestly had a loss of words (on Monday) when I found out."
Johnson had a SBC best 3.0 steals per game, which was 18th in the nation at the end of the regular season. With Johnson's prowess, she helped UTA to ninth in turnovers forced per game in NCAA Division I with more than 21.5, also a conference best.
The campaign has been a record setter with the 21-7 overall record currently ranked the best winning percentage in history, besting a 24-9 season in 2005-06, the last time the team won a conference title. UTA had a winning record in each month for the first time in program history, and after starting 5-0, received votes in the USA Today Coaches' Poll for the first time.
The momentum obtained by winning the last four games of the regular season is something that Gerlich has pointed to as a stregth of this team. UTA opened the year with seven newcomers that had to gel and figures things out with chemistry, but it has been the newcomers that she also attributes to being the reason why the team is where they are.
For starters, junior transfer Shelby Richards knocked down a game-winning 3-pointer in the season finale at Louisiana on a pass from another junior transfer Christina Devers. Devers knocked down five trey's in the game in Lafayette, but passed up the opportunity for the final shot for a more open Richards in the cornder. Junior transfer Crystal Allen is on pace for the best 3-point percentage in program history, knocking down long shots at a 48.1 percent clip.
Adding to the group, the team has put a freshman at the helm of the offense. Ericka Mattingly has shined at the point guard position and is near the top of the league in both assists per game and steals per game, sitting just behind Johnson in the defensive category.
For UTA to advance into the SBC semifinal on Saturday, it will need to get by No. 10South Alabama, who defeated Georgia State on Tuesday in the first round. UTA swept the season series with South Alabama in a pair of defensive battles.
The tournament also gives the Lady Mavericks the opportunity to earn their first Sun Belt tournament win as they have dropped both contest so far since joining the conference in 2013-14. UTA fell to Texas State in the 2014 tournament before Louisiana was able to hold off the Lady Mavs last season.
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