The game clock was under 55 seconds. The shot clock was somewhere between three seconds and two, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Mocs a somewhat comfortable six points ahead of Elon.
From the left side of the floor, two Phoenix players in his face, UTC point guard Keegan Bell thought he spied an open Jahmal Burroughs on the other side of the floor. Trouble was, Burroughs didn’t see his senior classmate. But he heard his teammates on the bench screaming for him to save the basketball before it bounced out of bounds.
Then he heard his coach, John Shulman, shout, “Shoot it!”
Said Burroughs: “I wasn’t even looking at the rim. I just guessed. It was one of those supernatural shots. You can’t practice that.”
Turns out, he guessed right. Despite starting the shot with his back to the basket, despite leaning to his left while shooting to his right, despite the fact that “I’m not a turnaround jumper guy,” the shot dropped perfectly through the net.
Mocs up 78-70.
They won 51 seconds later by 83-75, their first victory in eight games — the last three of those losses played without Burroughs, who had been sidelined with a hamstring injury.
Said Shulman: “We’re a lot better when Jahmal’s not in street clothes.”
You can argue whether or not Burrough’s shot saved this one. There will be plenty of time to decide whether the return of Burroughs can save a disappointing Mocs season, now at 10-16 overall and 4-9 within the Southern Conference.
But no one can argue the heart of this team and this coach, whatever you think of this season.
Beyond that, before everyone pounces on Shulman’s excuse about injuries, how good was Syracuse a couple of weeks ago without Fab Melo? Winning by 19.8 points a game with him, the Orange went three contests without him and scored exactly the combined total of their three opponents. Was Jim Boeheim — the third winningest men’s coach in major college history — that much worse a coach? Or could a player really make a difference?
Yes, injuries are part of the game. But the Mocs having already run off the immature and ungrateful senior forward Chris Early over Tweet-gate, they could ill afford to lose either Burroughs or Zaccheus Mason. Instead they’ve been without both for the past two weeks and Mason remained in street clothes against Elon.
Yet one experienced post player is better than none, and Burroughs provided energy and execution for 24 strong minutes, finishing with 11 points, nine rebounds, three assists and a steal. That stat line tied his career high in points and set career marks in rebounds and assists.
Said fellow senior Ricky Taylor, who led the Mocs with 22 points, despite continued pain in his right wrist: “You’ve got to give a big standing ovation tonight to Jahmal Burroughs.”
They all deserved a standing ovation for perseverance, including Shulman.
Not always the most flexible or patient of coaches, Shulman exhibited both against the crafty Phoenix. For perhaps the first time in his eight years on the UTC bench, his sport coat stayed on his torso the entire game, believed to be a first.
Then there were the actual X’s and O’s, which included keeping Shulman’s beloved “Fire” defense in the closet.
“Lebo’s tricky,” he said of Jeff Lebo, his mentor and the man he replaced as UTC’s coach. “I’m not smart enough to be tricky.”
Maybe not, but he was tricky enough to change defenses at least five times without trotting out Fire. The result was a stat sheet that showed the Mocs shooting better from the floor, the 3-point line and the foul line, tying the taller Phoenix on the glass and committing one fewer turnover.
“Every team has a story,” Burroughs said. “I know that none of my teammates have given up. We can still make a [SoCon] tournament run.”
The beauty of sports is that you never know. Given up for dead after last Saturday’s blowout loss at Davidson, the Mocs had lost the previous four by a total of 11 points. Now they’ve won one, with yet another home game to come Saturday night against UNC Greensboro.
Said Taylor with a big smile as he recalled Burroughs’ late shot: “When he made that, I thought, ‘We’re back. Things are going our way again.’”
Never underestimate the power of a supernatural shot.
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 ...