Fans in section 115 of McKenzie Arena cheered until the end.
The problem for the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga is that section 115 contained nothing but purple-clad Furman fans.
The Paladins overcame a distinct home-court advantage for the Mocs and dispatched them into the offseason with a 62-51 win in the quarterfinals of the Southern Conference basketball tournament Saturday night.
“There’s a lot of pressure playing at home, and we didn’t handle that pressure,” said UTC coach John Shulman, who had been 6-0 in SoCon tournament games in the Roundhouse. “We played poorly. We played out of character.”
The Mocs (16-16) built that pressure through the season, and certainly through the week leading up to the tournament after winning a share of the SoCon North Division title. They had good practices in their facility and at Notre Dame High School, sessions filled with hustle, enthusiasm and excitement.
Then, Shulman said, it became quiet during the Mocs’ shootaround in Maclellan gym six hours prior to tipoff. And it was quiet in the locker room — the Lady Mocs’ locker room upstairs — before the game.
The silence became deadly.
Furman jumped to a 13-0 lead, and UTC didn’t score until Ricky Taylor converted a three-point play more than five minutes in.
“We looked out of sorts,” Shulman said. “We were just out of whack. We were frazzled.
“I cannot question our effort. We battled. Like hitting your head against a wall that’s not going to move.”
Furman guard Jordan Miller thrilled Furman’s small world. He scored 21 points and Amu Saaka scored 15 points and grabbed 10 rebounds for the Paladins, who will face either Elon or College of Charleston.
Junior point guard Keegan Bell led the Mocs with 20 points. Ricky Taylor and Omar Wattad each added 12.
But the Mocs missed more than their fair share of shots — too many for a tournament game — including 14 of 29 free throws and 15 of 20 3-pointers.
“You think they wanted to play like that on their home court?” Shulman said. “They’re heartbroken. It’s great playing here, but it’s also very difficult because you feel like you let down the world.”
UTC almost erased that 13-point hole. Taylor stole a pass in the frontcourt and sped to the rim with the Paladins distant in his rearview mirror.
But he missed the dunk — a symbol of the team’s struggles.
“I don’t think it was too much pressure on us,” Taylor said. “You have to give credit to Furman for turning up their defensive pressure.”
UTC headed into halftime down 30-24 after a half in which it could have been down by 24.
Furman’s lead swelled to nine early in the second half, but UTC worked its way back within 38-35 — giving the crowd, and the Mocs, some enthusiasm.
Yet Furman edged ahead as the Mocs struggled from the free-throw line. At one point, they missed six of nine that would have given them the lead because they were getting defensive stops.
They were within 43-40 when Furman started a 12-3 run that put the game — and the Mocs’ dreams of playing in the 2011 NCAA tournament — out of reach.
“In the couple of times Chattanooga made runs, it is their home court, their crowd got behind them,” Saaka said. “In the midst of all that chaos there was composure and poise from different guys on the floor.”
And the Paladins played with the poise despite having only a few sections of fans cheering their shots and jeering the Mocs.
“No doubt it felt like a road game,” said Furman coach Jeff Jackson, whose team fell 75-59 in McKenzie during a “Black-Out” promotion. “It wasn’t the same intensity as the last game. But you have to win road games.
“That’s how it works.”
They’ll be playing on a neutral court the rest of the season.
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 ...