The 1981 season was one of the best years for UTA basketball, especially up to that point. Since joining the four-year ranks in 1959, UTA basketball had just three winning seasons in its history. They were 14-12 in 1966-67 and 1971-72 and 14-13 in 1979-80. When a 13-13 mark in 1972-73 is also considered successful, you know a sport program is moribund.
In my opinion, the 1980-81 team, from a pure talent perspective, is still the best team that UTA has produced. I say that over the 2008 NCAA tournament team as well as the 2012 SLC champ and NIT team.
The Southland at that time was one of the better non-power conferences in the country. As a whole, the conference was 8-9 in the NCAA tournament with two sweet sixteen appearances from the 1979 tournament to the 1987 from four different teams. That time frame is specific since the conference changed drastically. UTA dropped football, forcing the men's teams out of the conference for a year as the membership rules required teams to sponsor the sport. That led a domino effect of Lamar, Louisiana Tech and Arkansas State exiting the conference and lower tier teams replacing them, especially in basketball. The first two teams combined for all eight of the NCAA tourney wins. The SLC wouldn't win an NCAA tourney game again until Northwestern State won a play-in game in 2001.
Again from 79-86, the conference went 8-9 in the National Invitational Tournament. La Tech placed third overall in 1986 and Southwestern Louisiana (Louisiana-Lafayette now) made the quarterfinals in 1980. The 8-10 record came from a combined six SLC teams. That many teams recieving at-large invitations in a time when the NCAA tournament saw 48 teams and the NIT fielded 32 is incredible. So was the success level.
In 1980, '81, '82, '84, '85, '86 and '87, the SLC sent multiple teams to the NCAA tournament and the NIT combined. This is significant because the entire NIT was invitational back then. Every team was at-large. Regular-season champions who don't win the conference tourney started receiving NIT bids in 2001. In 1986, the SLC even sent three teams to postseason play.
The SLC produced two notable NBA talents in Karl Malone and Joe Dumars in that time frame as well as lots of talented players like Mike Oliver, Andrew Toney and Willie Simmons to go with great coaches like Billy Tubbs, Pat Foster, Andy Russo and Bobby Paschal.
In short, the SLC was a top ten basketball conference during this time period and UTA was on the verge of a conference championship had they not lost the last game of the 1980-81 year. While this Mavericks squad may not have produced the results of conference championships or NCAA tourney appearances, it finished second in a much-much harder SLC. That team featured some of the greatest UTA players in the program's history, like guards Jeffery Stewart and Rickey Leggett with interior play from Albert Culton and Ralph MacPherson.
Stewart played shooting guard most nights and finished his career in 1982 as the second all-time leading scorer in program history with 1,302 total points. That total is still sixth overall for any Maverick.
Leggett is one of the best point guards to wear a Mav jersey as he retired with the most assists in a career with 501 and steals with 218. He is still second in assists and third in steals all-time to this date.
Culton, who only played two years as a Maverick, finished his career as UTA's fourth most prolific rebounder (16th to date). Among those in the top 20, he has the most rebounds per game at 9.7. He also shot 63% from the field.
MacPherson finished the season fifth all-time in single season scoring in '80-'81 with 510 points. At a career 56%, you could count on MacPherson to be an accurate shooter. MacPherson also led the team in scoring at 15.4 per game (he would repeat the feat the following year).
Finally, there was the colorful coach in Bob "Snake" LeGrand. He is remembered fondly by not just those affiliated with UTA, but also in the conference, some of whom still casually reference him today. He, like most coaches at UTA, had the hard task of 1) operating with a smaller budget than his conference peers and 2) recruiting to Texas Hall. It may not be a coincidence that this stretch of winning coincided with an announcement in November of 1977 to bring a new football stadium and arena to campus. Maverick Stadium would eventually get built. UTA basketball would have to wait about three and a half more decades.
"Snake" had a very uptempo style and recruited heavily from the JuCo ranks and took other teams talented but troubled castoffs. That strategy worked for a while. His win total improved every year from when he started in 1976-77 until this year, grabbing UTA's first 20 win season. It would tailspin after that, as the 1981-82 season would be his last with a winning record until he departed after the 1986-87 season.
But the highlight of his coaching tenure happened 34 years ago today.
On This Day in UTA Basketball History, UTA plays in its first postseason game after getting invited to the 1981 NIT.
Movin' Mavs lose NIT battle with South Alabama, 74-71
By BOB GENNARELLI
Staff Writer of The News
MOBILE, Ala. - The Mobile newspapers have given great play to the fact South Alabama coach Cliff Ellis was upset his Jaguars were playing in the National Invitational Tournament instead of the NCAA's, where he thought USA belonged.
Wednesday night, Ellis and his now 24-5 Jaguars almost found out what it was like not to be in either.
UT-Arlington's Albert Culton, the team's leading scorer in this the school's best season ever, watched his pass sail out of bounds with four seconds left and UTA down 72-71, then Ed Rains put the icing on the cake with a slam dunk as time ran out to give South Alabama a 74-71 decision over the Mavericks in NIT first-round action.
With 28 seconds remaining and USA clinging to that slim 1-point lead, Rains was called for walking, giving the Mavericks one last opportunity to advance to the tournament's second round this weekend. But as UTA worked for the last shot, Culton found himself trapped and sailed his pass between Melvin Polk and Jeffery Stewart and into the press table.
"We were working for a good shot and if that pass had gone we would have had it," said a disheartened Snake LeGrand, whose Mavericks ended the year at 20-8, losing their last three.
"He was passing for Polk or Stewart and it just split 'em. But I was proud of the way we played considering their fans, and they had some great fans. It was tough working a crowd like that because it really gets behind the team.
"But I don't have any reservations," LeGrand added.
With the score knotted at 37 at the half, UTA managed two 4-point leads in the second half's early going - 41-37 and 47-43 - but on both occasions LeGrand watched those vanish in just a short time.
However, the Movin' Mavs, playing in their first postseason action since the school became a 4-year college in 1959, took advantage of 19 USA turnovers to overcome a 3-point deficit midway through the final 20 minutes.
STEWART CANNED a 15-foot-jumper to put the Mavericks up 58-57 with 10:53 to play, then increased that to five twice at 62-57 and 64-59, but the Jaguars got eight of Rains's game high 26 points over the final 7:54 to put the Mavericks on ice.
"We hadn't seen that defense since before Christmas," USA's Ellis said as the Jaguars hit their average - 74 points. "It was a run-and-jump defense and they were doubling up everywhere.
"Not playing, and that combined with some turnovers made us do what we did. But the second half we only had four turnovers and that turned it around."
But the Jaguars shooting at a blistering 66 percent from the field for the night didn't hurt matters either. USA hit 15 of its 22 second-half attempts from the field for a 68.2 performance. That combined with the Jaguars' 64 percent showing in the first half proved the difference down the stretch.
UTA countered with 60 percent effort from the field, some nine points above the Mavericks' season average. Culton and Stewart paced the Movin' Mavs with 16 points each, while Polk, in his last game for UTA, added 15.
UT-Arlington MP FG FT REB A PF TP
Leggett 38 2-4 4-6 0 6 4 8
Johnson 10 1-1 0-0 0 1 2 2
Williams 16 0-2 0-1 1 2 0 0
McPherson 39 5-1 2-2 6 1 2 12
Culton 25 7-9 2-3 6 3 2 16
Polk 32 7-12 1-2 0 4 1 15
Stewart 32 7-10 2-2 1 3 4 16
Jenkins 8 1-1 0-0 1 1 0 2
Totals 200 30-50 11-16 17 20 15 71
South Alabama MP FG FT REB A PF TP
May 21 1-3 0-0 2 1 3 2
Bryant 21 3-5 0-0 0 4 1 6
Rains 36 10-14 6-8 7 4 3 26
Andrew 38 5-9 1-2 1 7 2 11
Hafley 26 5-7 0-0 8 2 1 10
White 37 7-9 5-8 6 3 4 19
Team Totals 200 31-47 12-18 27 25 14 74
UTA - 37 34 - 71
South Alabama - 37 37 - 74
Officials - McDaniel, Dunn, Groser.
Turnovers - UTA, 9; SA, 19.
Blocked shots - UTA, Culton. SA, White (2), Hafley (2), Williams (1).