Beating an NCAA Division I team has been a long time coming for the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
The Mocs earned their first win over comparable competition since Nov. 25 with an 85-50 dismantling of Longwood in the opening round of the Dr Pepper Classic on Thursday in McKenzie Arena.
"We've had to have faith that we're getting better but without the proof," coach John Shulman said. "Tonight, I think we got some proof."
UTC point guard Keegan Bell set a career high with 16 assists in addition to 10 points and nine rebounds. And he did so after a painful day in the training room.
A back rib on his left side popped out of place as he stood up in the morning meeting.
"I couldn't breathe, it was hurting so bad," said Bell, who had the problem solved about an hour before tipoff. "I was on the ground and [trainer B.J. Leyser] was pushing me, and when it popped back into place, I felt so much better."
Senior Omar Wattad, who missed the Hiwassee game with a concussion, felt better as Thursday night's game moved along. He led UTC with 18 points, 15 coming in the second half.
Jahmal Burroughs, Ricky Taylor and Zaccheus Mason each scored 10 points. Mason had seven rebounds and helped the Mocs out-rebound Longwood 56-31. Antwan Carter led Longwood with 15 points and seven rebounds.
"I'm trying to make strides," said Mason, who spent two years playing football at Ole Miss. "Everything is starting to be more comfortable. It's starting to come together and I take steps every day."
UTC will face Utah Valley in the championship game tonight at 7. The Wolverines (7-8) beat Hampton 42-40 in the first game Thursday.
"I haven't seen them," said Shulman, who had assistant Brent Jolly preparing the game plan for the Wolverines. "I know they won a slugfest, but don't get fooled by that."
The Mocs (5-8) were in a similar game for the first 20 minutes against the Lancers (4-9). UTC trailed for most of the first half and took just its second lead of the game following two free throws from Drazen Zlovaric in the final second of the half.
The Mocs shot 1-of-13 from the arc in the first half. But 24 of their 32 points came from inside the paint and five were freebies from the stripe. The Lancers scored 21 of their first-half points from outside the arc, including 12 points from Tristan Carey.
The Mocs opened the second half by blowing a 3-on-1 fastbreak but used an 11-2 run to grab a 43-32 lead less than five minutes into the half.
Longwood missed its first nine 3-point attempts in the second half, which helped lead to a 56-41 advantage for UTC after Dontay Hampton buried a 3-pointer from the right corner with 9:21 to go.
In fact, Longwood missed all 15 long-range attempts in the second half and was outscored 53-20 after halftime.
UTC's lead swelled to 20 as the Lancers struggled to score in the second half with only 11 points in the first 12 minutes, including 10 straight missed 3s.
Taylor scored the 1,000th point of his career on a 3-pointer from the left wing with 7:53 to go, which gave UTC a 64-41 advantage.
Shulman reached deep into his bench with more than four minutes to play when he inserted Martynas Barieka and Drew Baker into the game. Lance Stokes did not play because he was late to a practice earlier this week.
"To beat anybody by 33 in the second half, we definitely got better," Shulman said. "Now what do we do? Regroup and be ready to play tomorrow."