When Furman coach Jeff Jackson exited McKenzie Arena a couple of weeks ago, he hinted that fatigue might have been a factor in the Paladins’ 16-point loss to the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
Too bad the Mocs couldn’t use that same excuse for Saturday night’s rematch in the Southern Conference tournament quarterfinals.
Obviously well-rested (they hadn’t played in a week), seemingly motivated — “We’re in it to win it,” Mocs coach John Shulman had proclaimed a few days earlier — UTC displayed neither poise nor polish in losing 61-52 to the Paladins, who were playing their second game in 24 hours.
Playing on the same floor and baskets they’ve used almost every day in practice since Oct. 15 and through 15 home games, the Mocs missed 14 of 29 free throws (52 percent), 15 of 20 3-pointers (25 percent) and 35 of 51 field goals overall (31.4 percent).
“I’m really disappointed,” said Shulman, no doubt echoing the feelings of most within the Mocs Nation. “We didn’t play.”
Actually, they played hard, which Shulman’s teams almost always have done during his seven years as head coach. Against a Furman team that improved to 22-9 — a team that beat South Carolina, Middle Tennessee State and Northeastern during the regular season — the Mocs forced 22 turnovers (committing only 16) and made off with nine steals.
But they never could hit shots, especially from the foul line, where they hit 13 percent below their season average of 65 percent.
And they missed the most when it mattered most, missing five of their final 11.
“We’re a pretty good free -throw team, especially late in games, and we were an embarrassment tonight,” Shulman said.
He also said, “We were out of whack. We were frazzled.”
A single example: Ricky Taylor — who scored 41 points earlier this season against UNC Greensboro — missed a dunk in the opening half that would have tied the game.
“We missed a dunk,” Shulman moaned. “Enough said.”
You finish 16-16 overall starting four juniors and a senior and there are more than a few embarrassments. Against the top of the league, UTC often looked out of whack and frazzled away from McKenzie.
But the Mocs had entered the final regular-season home game undefeated against SoCon opponents inside Bigger Mac. With the tournament slated for McKenzie, with the Mocs having won the two previous SoCon tourneys on this court under Shulman’s watch, all seemed possible.
Or as Shulman said late Saturday evening, “We were living the [NCAA tournament] dream.”
But Wofford crushed the Mocs by 39 in their final home game before the tourney began and despite an upbeat week of practice, Shulman noted that the locker room was unusually quiet Saturday evening.
“And that worried me,” he said.
It is tempting to worry about this program, which hasn’t won 20 games in a season since Shulman’s first year in 2005.
And it is reasonable to expect more from a coach starting four juniors and a senior in his seventh season on the job.
But Furman starts four seniors and one junior, and as Shulman noted, “There’s something about seniors at tournament time, and Furman played like seniors.”
Here’s a sign of that something: Asked to describe his team’s mood as UTC tried and tried to rally, Furman senior Amu Saaka said of senior point guard Darryl Evans, “There was a sense of calm out there.”
A year from now, UTC will have the seniors, and judging from the tears rimming junior point guard Keegan Bell’s eyes, they’ll have plenty of motivation not to let this happen again when the tourney shifts to Asheville, N.C.
“I know this will motivate us,” Bell said. “We’ll have a lot of seniors next year.”
There is motivation and there is desperation. For the Mocs to embrace the former and not get caught up in the latter, Shulman, Bell and the rest of UTC’s rising seniors need to develop a sense of calm long before next season’s Southern Conference tourney rolls around, lest there be no calm in the Mocs’ antsy fans.
Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...