Finally, the crowd in McKenzie Arena had something to celebrate.
University of Tennessee at Chattanooga basketball coach John Shulman pulled all four of his seniors off the floor to a standing ovation with 50.9 seconds before the Mocs polished off Samford 86-78 on Senior Night.
"I'm happy for the seniors," Shulman said after the Southern Conference win. "They've been through a lot."
UTC (11-20, 5-15) will face Georgia Southern in the first round of the SoCon tournament Friday in Asheville, N.C. The Eagles dropped to No. 3 in the South Division after losing 71-54 to Davidson on Saturday.
"We're really looking forward to it," Shulman said of the rematch with the Eagles. "They stole one from us here. We earned it, deserved it and didn't get it. They celebrated on our court. We're looking forward to Friday night."
The Bulldogs (11-18, 8-10) dropped to third place in the North Division with the combination of its loss, an Elon win and a Western Carolina win Saturday.
UTC senior Keegan Bell scored a season-high 21 points and senior Jahmal Burroughs set a career high with 19. Classmates Omar Wattad and Ricky Taylor added 11 and 10. Sophomore Zaccheus Mason grabbed 12 rebounds and scored seven points.
"It didn't hit me until I subbed out that this was going to be my last time playing in McKenzie Arena," Burroughs said. "Then emotions took over. It was one of those feelings where you're happy but you're kind of sad."
The Bulldogs were led by 21 points from Raijon Kelly, 16 from Tyler Hood and 15 from Will Cook.
The Mocs carried some emotion from pregame ceremonies into the opening minutes of the game. Wattad shot 2-of-7 from the arc in pacing UTC to a 13-2 early lead.
But the adrenaline disappeared following a Samford timeout. The Bulldogs outscored UTC 36-16 over the rest of the half, leading to a 38-29 difference at halftime.
The Bulldogs shot 15-of-31 from the floor in the first half, including 5-of-13 from the 3-point line. Meanwhile, the Mocs were 3-of-15 on 3s with 12 straight misses to close the half. But inside, Burroughs connected on all five of his attempts in the paint.
"We got off to a great start, then here it comes again," Shulman said. "But they battled through it."
UTC inched closer to the Bulldogs early in the second half and drew even at 51 on a long 3 by Bell. Two trips later, Bell gave UTC its first lead of the second half, 58-55, on a 3 from the right wing with 10:30 to go. Bell pushed the margin to 66-58 by hitting another 3 after chasing down an offensive rebound.
It was a lead the Mocs did not relinquish. They shot 10-of-16 from the free-throw line in the final 80 seconds of the game.
After a free throw from Burroughs, the reserves entered the game and the seniors hugged everybody on the team who wasn't on the floor.
"I'm happy for the seniors, and I planned it out that they all go double figures on that last night," Shulman said. "I'm happy that they ended up in a good way."
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 ...