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  • Writer's pictureBen Dickson

Men's Wheelchair Update: UT-Arlington Champs Again!

A familiar name in men’s wheelchair intercollegiate basketball has reached the top of the mountain once again.

UT-Arlington clinched its second consecutive national championship and its third in the last five tournaments – the 2020 tournament was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic – with a 67-56 victory over the Alabama Crimson Tide on March 19.

“Well, that’s one of the things we’re here to do,” UT-Arlington head coach Doug Garner told CBT. “So to me, it doesn’t surprise me. Nothing against anybody else, but that’s what we’re here to do.”

The Movin’ Mavs were fortunate to host the event, and they protected their home court in a convincing fashion. UT-Arlington, CBT’s preseason No. 1 team in the nation, held its reign over the intercollegiate division throughout the regular season, earning the No. 1 overall seed in the postseason bracket.

Garner’s squad sailed into the tournament and easily moved past No. 8-seed Missouri in its first game of the tournament, the quarterfinal on March 17.

“I thought that was a very intriguing 1-8 matchup,” Garner said. “Because they had beaten several of the teams in our division and had some very good athletes, a couple of Canadian Paralympic athletes, so it had me a little worried going in. And I thought we responded really well, and it was a great preparation for us to move forward to the Whitewater game.”

One day later, UT-Arlington had a battle on its hands with No. 4-seed Wisconsin-Whitewater in the semifinal. Trailing by double digits in the second half, the Movin’ Mavs seemed like they could be in for an early exit in front of their home fans. But with a ferocious second-half comeback, UT-Arlington proved their mettle.

Garner implemented a press to speed up the pace of the game, boosting the team’s energy and leading to scores in transition. Past comeback experiences during the regular season left UT-Arlington players with plenty of confidence in chasing down Wisconsin-Whitewater.

Ultimately, Garner’s adjustments erased the deficit. With the crowd behind them, the Movin’ Mavs escaped with a 65-61 triumph over the Warhawks. “Survive and advance” is a cliché March mantra, but it is also true; it doesn’t matter if it’s pretty, as long as you get by.

In its third game in three days – the NWBA National Intercollegiate Championships are played in a jam-packed style similar to major Division I conference tournaments – UT-Arlington had a massive task ahead in No. 2-seed Alabama.

The two teams met thrice in the regular season, and the Movin’ Mavs possessed a 2-1 record over the Crimson Tide. UT-Arlington throttled Alabama in the first meeting, 74-39, on Nov. 12 at home. Alabama closed the gap exactly three months later, though, splitting with the Movin’ Mavs at a February tournament in Arlington. Neither game was close; UT-Arlington won, 63-48, on Feb. 11, while Alabama won, 66-54, on Feb. 12.

The national championship game was much more competitive than the previous three meetings. Alabama held a 30-29 halftime lead, and the contest was shaping up to be an epic affair between the two rivals.

“One of the great things about our division is our closest rivals are also some of the better teams in the division,” Garner said. “So [there is an] opportunity to play them three times and push them and they push us. It gives us something to focus on in our practices and to keep in mind as we move forward that Alabama is right around the corner.”

However, UT-Arlington was blazing in the second half, outscoring the Crimson Tide, 38-26, in the final 20 minutes en route to an 11-point victory. The Movin’ Mavs excelled in two key areas of the game: points off turnovers and bench points.

The Movin’ Mavs – who pressed for the entire game to Alabama’s surprise – forced 21 Alabama turnovers and capitalized on them with 20 points. Just as impressively, UT-Arlington only turned the ball over seven times, resulting in four Crimson Tide points.

UT-Arlington also won the bench points battle, 15-2. According to Garner, UT-Arlington had seven or eight players score each game, and double teams on stars such as senior Clarence “CJ” McCarthy-Grogan allowed his bench scorers to thrive.

Alabama senior Ignacio Ortega dominated with 32 points and 15 rebounds while playing all 40 minutes, but his contributions could not get the Crimson Tide over the hump.

McCarthy-Grogan shined in the title game, scoring 24 points and grabbing 12 boards. The Australian Paralympian earned tournament MVP honors for his performance.

“Being a senior, I think he had a mission to come back and really help carry our team, skill-wise and also leadership-wise, too,” Garner said of McCarthy-Grogan. “...I think leadership is one of the biggest things, to be able to make that last step up to the championship run, and he provided that. But I’ve always said, since he’s been there, that he’s probably one of the better all-around players in the division.”

Aaron Summerill was also clutch, recording a double-double with 11 points and 10 rebounds.

Garner, now a three-time national champion at the university, notes how UT-Arlington was undefeated before the pandemic ended the 2019-20 season. He is immensely proud of his squad for losing only twice in three seasons. The program’s history is something that Garner describes as an “X-factor” for his program.

The Movin’ Mavs, now 10-time champions, finish their 2021-22 campaign with an impressive 13-2 overall record and yet another national championship ring to show for it.

“It’s exciting to see the guys, though, that’s my take on it, is just to see the guys,” Garner said. “They’ve all worked so hard. They’ve all put so much time into it. They’ve all invested a lot of energy and engagement and the highs and lows of playing college basketball. So that’s the real payoff for me, is seeing them enjoy the fruits of their labor.”

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