UTA men's basketball moves on to Sun Belt Championship final

Head coach Scott Cross encourages the players from the sidelines during the semifinals of the 2018 Sun Belt Championship on March 10 in Lakefront Arena at the University of New Orleans. The Mavericks defeated the University of Louisiana at Lafayette in a close 71-68 matchup. They will advance to the championship game Sunday. 

NEW ORLEANS — The men’s basketball team (21-12, 11-8) secured a nail-biting upset win over top-seeded University of Louisiana at Lafayette 71-68 on Saturday at Lakefront Arena in the Sun Belt Championship semifinal game.

"We stayed together tonight, that was the main difference," senior guard Kaelon Wilson said. "We did not argue with each other, we didn't get down on each other. We coached each other up and kept going."

Now, the Mavericks are one game and one win from earning a bid into the NCAA Tournament, a feat that hasn't been accomplished since their first-ever berth in 2008.

"We knew we were going to have to play one of our best games to beat Louisiana," head coach Scott Cross said. "They don't want their season to end, they want to continue to play and it is a testament to [the team] because they made plays when it counted."

The Ragin’ Cajuns tipped off the first half outscoring the Mavericks 9-2. UTA then responded with a 13-1 run to take its first lead of the game.

From 3-pointers to dunks, the Mavericks played with intensity throughout the first half, pushing their lead to as much as eight points. The Ragin’ Cajuns closed in on the Mavericks' lead toward the end of the half as UTA held a slim 37-34 lead at the break. 

Senior guard Erick Neal put up 11 points, five rebounds and four assists in the first half to lead all scorers.

"Erick is our vocal leader. He was locked in just as much as I have ever seen any player for the last five or six games," Cross said. "He is one of the most competitive, determined guys I have ever coached

Coming out in the second half, after Louisiana made it a one-point game, Wilson knocked down six of the Mavericks' first 11 points. From there, the teams went neck-and-neck, exchanging shots as Louisiana drew closer to the lead.

"Coach Cross, for the game basically he is telling us to give it all that we got and that is all that I kept thinking in the second half," Wilson said. "I am dog tired but that could have potentially been my last college game so I had to give it all that I got, and I wanted more."

The Ragin’ Cajuns jumped ahead late in the second half with the help of a 9-2 run that gave them a 64-60 lead.

Trailing by four as the clock wound down, Wilson drained a 3-pointer to make it a one-point game. Senior guards Erick Neal and Nathan Hawkins then responded with a pair of shots to give the Mavericks the lead once again.

After hitting the two-minute mark, foul trouble took over the game as the Ragin’ Cajuns were able to make it 68-67. The Louisiana fans in the crowd stood up and boo’d as Wilson and senior forward Kevin Hervey drew fouls.

With 11 seconds on the clock, Hervey made what would be the pair of game-winning free throws to pull off the upset.

The Mavericks were led in double digits by four seniors: Neal, Hervey, Wilson and center Johnny Hamilton. Neal put up 18 points in the win and was followed by Wilson with 17 points, Hervey with 14 points and Hamilton with 12 points.

UTA will face the winner of the Georgia State University vs. Georgia Southern University semifinal game in the Sun Belt Championship game at 1 p.m. Sunday at Lakefront Arena.

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