The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Lady Mocs have no idea what it's like to play for the Southern Conference basketball tournament championship on their home floor.
They came so close to finding out.
Second-seeded Samford scored the last seven points of regulation and the first seven in overtime to defeat third-seeded UTC 68-66 in Sunday afternoon's semifinal before a mostly bewildered crowd of 2,433 at McKenzie Arena. The Lady Mocs had a chance to force a second overtime, but Bailey Dewart's shot after driving the baseline was blocked by Hannah Dawson just before the final horn sounded.
"It hurts to be up so much and then lose that lead," junior forward Whitney Hood said minutes after UTC's season ended with a 17-14 record, "but I'm proud of us for continuing to fight at the end."
Bulldogs coach Mike Morris labeled Sunday's victory "as good of a basketball game as I've been associated with." Samford, which lost to the Lady Mocs in last year's title game in Charlotte, improved to 24-7 and will face top-seeded Appalachian State today at 4.
UTC is missing out on a championship appearance for only the third time in the last 11 seasons, but all three of those occasions have occurred in Chattanooga.
"I can't blame this one on the Chattanooga Sports Committee," Lady Mocs coach Wes Moore said. "When we came in the first two times as the No. 1 seed and with expectations through the roof, I think it hurt us. Today, I think we played hard, played our guts out, and just didn't quite get it done. They've got a great team and we've got a young team, but when you're that close, it's still going to hurt.
"I think this was one year that having the tournament here was a benefit."
For the first time since 2000, there will not be a UTC representative in either the men's or women's championship game.
The Lady Mocs were on the brink of another trip when Taylor Hall's 3-pointer with 3:08 remaining gave them a 59-52 lead. After Morris called a 30-second time out amid a frenzied McKenzie, Emily London hit her own 3-pointer to silence the crowd.
"Being down 59-52, I didn't want to lose," London said. "I wanted to do whatever I could to help the team win. I asked for the ball screen, and Coach Morris gave it to me."
Moore gave credit to the senior leadership displayed by London and Savannah Hill, two Samford seniors who combined for 41 points. That leadership was evident with six seconds left in regulation, when London fouled Tenisha Townsend after Townsend had come up with a steal and had the ball at midcourt in a 59-59 game.
The Bulldogs had one foul to give, and London used it to prevent the Lady Mocs from potentially scoring in transition. Moore then called a 30-second time out and diagrammed a play for Kayla Christopher.
"We had it set up to try and hit her for a curl around and a little jumper in the lane," Moore said. "I thought there was a whole lot of contact on the shot, but I guess nobody wants to make that call that late in the game. She did a great job of getting the shot up there and giving us a chance, and I thought the same thing in overtime.
"Bailey attacked the bucket and did what she needed to do. I'm pleased with both of those looks we got."
Kylie Lambert led UTC with 17 points and a career-high 14 rebounds, while Hood tallied 16 points. The Lady Mocs had five players connect on 3-pointers and shot better from long range (37.9 percent) than from 2-point attempts (34.4).
UTC's final record is its worst since Moore's first Lady Mocs squad went 10-17 in 1998-99, but Moore took great pride in the fact that his team Sunday was vastly superior to the 3-8 version he had at Christmas.
"There was a point during the season where I didn't know if we would ever make it to .500," he said. "There was a point today in overtime when we were down seven and you think it's over, but our kids battled back. I am very proud of them."