ASHEVILLE, N.C. — University of Tennessee at Chattanooga fans groaned as they exited McKenzie Arena after a 65-59 loss to Kennesaw State in the home-opener of the 2011-12 season.
None of them knew the groaning would grow — amongst themselves, the team and the UTC community.
That was supposed to be just an early-season hiccup. But it became a habit the Mocs could not shake resulting in the worst season in UTC’s Division I era which began in 1977.
“We’ve had a very unfair year,” coach John Shulman said after UTC’s 76-70 loss to Georgia Southern in the first round of the Southern Conference tournament on Saturday in the U.S. Cellular Center. “At some point, we were going to get some breaks.”
The Mocs entered that first home game after competing in games at Indiana and at Butler to open the year.
Optimism surrounded the season. UTC had five seniors, four starters, and a junior who played at Georgia as its center.
Appropriately, as the 2011 Southern Conference North Division co-champions, Mocs were picked by the SoCon coaches and media to win the division season.
It didn’t happen.
The Mocs did not come close to winning the North. They finished last and along the way, lost nine games by six points or less resulting in an overall record of 11-21 and 5-13 in the SoCon. Three of those victories came against non-Division I teams.
UTC not only suffered through a record number of losses this season, it sustained national embarrassment the day before it hit the national scene with a game at No. 1 Kentucky on Dec. 17
Posts on twitter.com by Chris Early — a senior starter who averaged 7.4 points and six rebounds per game — about Shulman in November became public. One of them stated, “I hate this man with a passion, each and every day I have to see him I become more and more miserable.”
Shulman waited until the spring semester began to suspend Early for the remainder of the season.
UTC won three straight SoCon home games after the announced suspension. The Mocs were 3-2 in the SoCon at the time and seemed to be on track to claim another division championship.
But then UTC lost three straight games which could have been wins. Last-second home losses to Davidson and Georgia Southern followed. Then two more road losses added up to equal the a seven-game losing streak — the worst in its Division I history.
A victory over Elon at home snapped the streak. Four more losses followed before UTC ended the regular season with an 86-78 triumph over Samford on senior night.
Only a run though the SoCon tournament could salvage their season.
“We came here with belief,” senior point guard Keegan Bell said Friday night. “This was our program and this was our team. We kept believing all year.”
The Mocs had a seven-point lead with nine minutes to play against the Eagles. It didn’t last. Once again, the Mocs snatched defeat from the grasp of victory as GSU’s pressure defense wore down the Mocs in the final minutes.
“Throughout the whole season we’ve had tough games and we’ve been coming up short,” senior Jahmal Burroughs said. “This was another one of those games where we had it and fell short in the end.”
It was the season-ending game. Managers collected jerseys and have probably packed them away for next year.
“This whole season is over and my college career is over,” senior Omar Wattad said. “That’s the sad truth.”
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 ...