published Monday, December 5th, 2011

UTC players feel hopeful despite 0-2 SoCon start

CHARLESTON, S.C. -- It takes about three hours to drive from Georgia Southern to the College of Charleston. It takes twice as long to drive from the Holy City to Chattanooga.

The shorter late-night bus ride may have seemed longer on Thursday night than the Mocs' trip home on Saturday.

The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga left each stop with the same end result -- a loss. How they earned their first two losses of the Southern Conference season unfolded in two different manners.

Georgia Southern took an early lead, kept the Mocs at bay during short runs, and led by 16 points with less than four minutes to play. UTC repeated the same lethargy that led to unforeseen losses to Kennesaw State, Gardner-Webb and a fortunate two-point win over Savannah State.

But less than 48 hours later, the Mocs stayed step-for-step with one of the preseason favorites and fell 87-85 in double overtime. The Mocs limited the Cougars to 38.2 percent shooting, reduced offensive rebounds to eight in regulation and had five players score in double figures.

"We just had a heart-to-heart with the whole team and said we have to play harder," senior Omar Wattad said. "We really didn't play hard enough against GSU. We may be picked to win the division, but if we don't bring it every night it's going to be bad news.

"I think this is a changing moment for Chattanooga."

The Mocs led 26-21 at halftime. Less than two minutes later they trailed by three. They trailed 60-54 with three minutes, 10 seconds to go in regulation before Chris Early, Keegan Bell and Wattad hit 3-pointers on three straight trips.

"If we're a bunch of front-runners and frauds, we would have folded," coach John Shulman said. "We had plenty of opportunities to fold and we didn't."

Bell missed the second of two free throws with 6.9 seconds to go. Then Andrew Lawrence raced down the court to tie the game at 68 and deliver a kick to the Mocs who had their best free throw shooter at the line with a chance to the Cougars into attempting a 3-pointer to tie. With the crowd at full-throat in extra time, it could have been another chance for UTC to fall behind.

"They played an outstanding basketball game," Cremins said. "We just hung in there. I'm not sure how we got through the overtime. We cannot get out-played and out-coached like this."

Cremins walked out of TD Arena with his head held high after a tough win. The Mocs boarded the bus with another loss, but a different mindset than when they left Statesboro.

It could be just another loss. Or, it could be a turning point in UTC's season. The rest of the games will determine the impact of Saturday's agony.

"If we keep on doing what we believe in and what we did tonight, we can get better and will be there in the end," coach John Shulman said. "Hopefully our basketball team learned a lot."

about David Uchiyama...

David Uchiyama is a sports writer at the Chattanooga Times Free Press who began his tenure here in May 2001. His primary beats are UTC athletics — specifically men’s basketball and athletic department administration — and golf, which includes coverage from the PGA Tour to youth events. He also covers other high school sports, outdoor adventures, and contributes to other sections of the newspaper when necessary. David grew up in Salinas, Calif., and began working ...

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