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ARLINGTON, Texas - Any great story will hook the reader to want more with each turn of the page. For UTA women's basketball, the story that the Lady Mavericks wrote this season is just setting the scene for what the next chapter in the history of the program may read.
UTA finished with a 22-9 overall record, third best in program history, and 14-4 in the Sun Belt to finish second, the highest the Lady Mavs have finished in since joining the conference for the 2013-14 season. The success earned the team their third-ever bid into the Women's NIT and a taste of what the postseason could mean for the future.
Reflecting on the season, UTA coach Krista Gerlich pointed to the early-season run as to a moment that when she looks back, she'll always remember, and not because of the success, but because of where the team had been prior.
"Ally Te'o was a senior on this team, and we started out 5-0 (this season) and her freshman year we were 0-10," Gerlich said. "I don't think I'll ever forget when we walked into the lobby at the Seton Hall tournament and she said "let's go get 5-0 today", and it just made me bust out laughing thinking about how far she had come. The start was excellent and just going from last to second in a matter of just four years is exciting."
The season was also a year filled with milestones and achievements for the record books. Cierra Johnson was named the Sun Belt Defensive Player of the Year after leading the conference in steals per game and finishing 14th in NCAA Division I. Her partner in crime, and part of next year's senior class, Rebekah VanDijk became the 18th member of UTA's 1,000-point club and is seeking to write her name at the top of many of the all-time records. VanDijk is eighth in in program history with 1,238 points, third in rebounding with 847 and third in blocks with 144.
The single-season and game records also fell with transfer Crystal Allen lighting it up from long range. Her 46.9 3-point percentage is tops all-time. Johnson finished with 93 steals, second in single-season history and just one behind the top mark. VanDijk posted a 34-point performance in the SHU Thanksgiving Classic Championship game, fourth in UTA history, while Ericka Mattingly and Johnson battled for single-game records in assists and steals.
As Gerlich looked back at everything that this team accomplished and the path in which they did so, she also continues to repeat that the team still has a lot more to achieve. Her message as the team departed the team bus after falling to Tulane in the WNIT was to always strive for more.
That message has resonated with the group, already in the gym and in the weight room preparing for another run.
"They are very unsatisfied with how we ended," Gerlich said. "You get excited about the progress and getting to the WNIT and advancing in the conference tournament, but we didn't play our best basketball at the end and that was our goal the entire time. They feel like they didn't do that and that keeps them hungry and motivated for what they can do."
With roster movement between graduating seniors and the departure of players, there is always a worry that the balance could be affected. However, the chemistry seems as strong as ever with the motivation of what could be ahead.
UTA added three to its roster with two eligible to make an impact in the upcoming season. Daiane Machado and Laurynn McGowan were both all-conference players at New Mexico Junior College, and add depth to an already apparent stacked roster built to make a run at the Sun Belt crown. Sophomore transfer Brooke Alexander (from Liberty) will also be eligible to make an impact after sitting out a season.
The upcoming year also has added hype as the recruiting class that started it all. The duo of VanDijk and Johnson are just two of the five seniors, joining Miranda LeJune, Shelby Richards and Allen as a group that were brought into to compete for the top spot, while VanDijk and Johnson are the first recruits from the original class of the coaching staff.
"They were the beginning class that believed in us before we did anything," Gerlich said. "Rebekah and Cierra are the cornerstones of what we were trying to build and bought into it. Not putting all our eggs in the basket, but hopefully at that point we aren't even close to playing our last game. It is crazy that it has already been four years going into their senior year."
With everything that this group has already accomplished and the excitement of what is in store for 2017-18, Gerlich noted that she hopes this is just the beginning of success for years to come.
"The level that they competed against in certain situations and to know that we have experience now and have been there and done that," she said. "Now that they have a taste of it, and have seen our men advance in the NIT, they see the potential and possibility in creating some great history, tradition and milestones that will hopefully just be stepping stones to where we want to go."
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