The Troy Trojans came in as the top seed and the favorite, but Sun Belt Player of the Year Starr Jacobs was phenomenal with 28 points, 10 rebounds and three steals from the forward position Monday afternoon at Pensacola Bay Center in Pensacola, Fla. to lead the UT Arlington Mavericks to the Sun Belt Tournament championship and an NCAA Tournament they wouldn't have made otherwise.
The second-seeded Mavericks (20-7, 11-4 Sun Belt), who won 76-61 for their first-ever Sun Belt Tournament title, went on a 13-0 run in the second quarter to build their largest lead of the game at 43-19. A backcourt steal led to a Jacobs layup that made it 38-19 and Jacobs followed with a nice assist to Shyia Smith in transition for a 40-19 lead. Camryn Hawkins then capped the run with a triple.
Troy (24-8, 13-2 Sun Belt) would stop the bleeding when a desperate attempt by UTA to keep the ball in bounds fell into the hands of Tina Stephens, who found a wide-open Tiyah Johnson for a layup on the other end. Johnson then made a three with 23 seconds remaining in the second to cut her team’s deficit to 19 at halftime.
The 5-0 run made a difference because Troy was able remain within striking distance in the third and fourth, but it did not make a difference in the win column.
A Sharonica Hartsfield steal led to an opportunity for Troy to cut it to nine or 10, but the team missed a two-pointer and Jacobs followed with a key play for UTA. She rebounded a three that was air-balled from the right wing and made a difficult layup on the left side plus the free throw to push the Mavericks’ lead back to 15.
In the remaining time, the Trojans cut it to 11 twice, but Jacobs again increased the UTA lead to 15 with a 3-point play with 3:04 remaining. After that, Troy would get no closer than 12.
A 6-1 Troy run brought the Trojans within 14 with 4:36 to go in the third. That run started with an Amber Leggett steal and fast break layup and was capped with another Leggett lay in. But UTA responded with a 6-0 run featuring four free throws and a Terryn Milton layup to go back up 20. The back-and-forth nature continued as Troy went on a 7-0 run comprising two Jhileiya Dunlap layups and a Johnson three. A 2-2 stretch later, the third quarter concluded with the Mavericks up 13.
UTA got off to a 20-8 start and led by the same margin after one (25-13). The Mavericks were 4-of-6 from downtown in the opening frame with Benjamin going 2-of-2 for eight points.
Benjamin ended up making her first three treys and finished with 14 points and six boards, while Milton added 12 points, eight rebounds and six assists.
The Mavericks won the Southland Tournament in 2005 and 2007 for their only other trips to the Big Dance.