published Friday, March 4th, 2011

Close games fine

Southern Conference men’s basketball coaches talked Tuesday about how this will be an exciting tournament.

They spoke of how No. 6 seeds UNC Greensboro and Georgia Southern could upset a team or two. And they spoke with conviction when saying those words.

For an upset to happen, an underdog would need to win a close game at the free-throw line or by hitting a dramatic buzzer-beater.

“In order to win titles you have to win close ones,” University of Tennessee at Chattanooga coach John Shulman said. “You have to make free throws, and we’ve shown we can do that. To win tight ones, you have to defend, rebound and take care of the ball.”

That’s all cool with his Mocs, who are among the favorites after earning a first-round bye with a 12-6 SoCon record. Only teams with byes have won under this format.

UTC has played in close games since donning its home uniforms straight from the Nike outfitter in the inaugural home game of the year. The Mocs lost that game 70-67 on a buzzer-beating 3-pointer by Austin Peay guard Caleb Brown.

“That was like three years ago,” Shulman said. “I kind of remember what happened, but we only lost one close conference game.”

That first home game was the only time this season that UTC lost a game that had a margin of five points or less with five minutes to play.

That doesn’t include the 69-68 loss at Western Carolina in which Catamounts guard Trey Sumler hit a free throw with one second to go. And it also doesn’t include UTC’s 77-72 overtime win at Samford in the last game of the regular season, when the Bulldogs outscored UTC 10-3 in the final four minutes.

The point remains: The Mocs have won close games way more often than not.

And they’ll be ready for such instances this weekend during the SoCon tournament in McKenzie Arena.

“Tournament games are going to be different — they’re going to be close — but we know how to handle that,” junior forward Chris Early said. “We keep our focus, we stay on our way and we win.

“The season has prepped us for the tournament.”

In the SoCon tournament under Shulman, UTC is 5-2 in games determined by 10 points or less. He has the same record in games decided by 11 or more.

But that’s a span of six different teams. His 2010-11 Mocs thrive in pressure situations. They’ve lost by 15 or more in seven of their 15 defeats, including a 39-point drubbing to Wofford on senior night.

The tighter the better, such as the double-overtime victory against UNC Greensboro when UTC trailed by seven in the second extra session.

“We’re mentally tough and we stick together,” Mocs guard Omar Wattad said. “If we get in another close game, we’ll be ready. We’ll need the crowd support, and that can only be a good thing.”

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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