The UTC women's basketball team is 8-1 heading into tonight's game at Auburn:
Nov. 9 No. 20 Tennessee W, 80-71
Nov. 14 at Belmont W, 84-54
Nov. 17 East Tennessee State W, 81-48
Nov. 23 Portland State W, 68-59
Nov. 24 at St. Mary's L, 70-67
Nov. 29 Wofford W, 68-54
Dec. 1 Furman W, 83-40
Dec. 8 at Alabama W, 72-58
Dec. 12 Jacksonville State W, 72-59
On the long bus ride back to Chattanooga last March, following a one-point loss to Memphis in the first round of the Women's NIT, Wes Moore talked about the state of his program.
For the second straight season, his University of Tennessee at Chattanooga women's basketball team had failed to win a Southern Conference title and missed the NCAA tournament. Change had to come, the coach said during a phone interview.
"We've got to get tougher, got to get stronger and we've got to do the little things," Moore said after a 22-10 season. "When you're losing close games, it's a possession -- one possession and you're there. We used to make those plays; we used to not lose focus or relax on a possession. We used to make every possession important."
A lot of those things the Lady Mocs "used to" do, they've done during the first nine games of the 2012-13 season. Other than a 70-67 slip-up at St. Mary's on Nov. 24 -- and St. Mary's has an RPI ranking of 19 -- UTC has come out on top. Even when it hasn't played all that well.
"It's definitely been better than a year ago," Moore said Monday. "I think the kids, after what happened last year, they got a good wake-up call. I think they've worked hard in the offseason and ... we've got a veteran team in a lot of ways with the two seniors and six juniors."
UTC is 8-1, 2-0 against Southeastern Conference teams and 2-0 in SoCon play. The Lady Mocs wrap up the 2012 portion of their schedule tonight against Auburn (8-2) at Auburn Arena.
"We know what's expected here: winning the SoCon championship and getting to the NCAA tournament," junior forward Taylor Hall said. "The last couple of years we haven't quite made it, and I think this year we started off on a great note and everybody's just working hard and we have a great team."
For UTC, a season couldn't start better than with a win against Tennessee. The Lady Mocs stunned the Lady Vols 80-71 at McKenzie Arena. Tennessee, 7-1 going into Tuesday night's game at defending national champion Baylor, was ranked No. 20 at the time; this week the Lady Vols are No. 10 in the Associated Press poll.
UTC has received votes in the AP and coaches' polls since beating UT, which vaulted the Lady Mocs into the top 10 of most RPI rankings. They had remained in the top 20 of the RPI until they beat a winless Jacksonville State team last week, which dropped them a few notches.
The Lady Mocs' comfortable 72-58 win at Alabama on Dec. 8, looked good on paper, and any SEC win on the road has value, but it didn't do anything for UTC's RPI. In the current RealTimeRPI.com rankings, UTC is No. 24, Alabama is No. 156 after losing to Wofford on Monday and Auburn is No. 112.
While the SoCon has historically been a one-bid league for NCAA tournament inclusion, UTC might be playing its way into at-large consideration, especially if it can knock off the Tigers tonight and go 3-0 against the SEC. And should UTC return to the NCAA tournament, its nonconference performance also likely would help it get a higher seed.
"It means a lot," Moore said of tonight's game, "but at the same time, win or lose, in January we start full conference play. No doubt, it's big as far as seeding and RPI and that type of thing. It's a great opportunity."