Tatianna Jackson and Alicia Payne, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga women's basketball team's only freshmen, haven't played like first-year players too often lately.
"A lot of times freshmen hit a wall, because of the travel and the length of the season, but to be honest with you, they're just the opposite," Lady Mocs coach Wes Moore said. "Ours are getting more confident with every game and are feeling more comfortable with their roles. They give us a big lift."
That lift has helped UTC sit atop the Southern Conference standings throughout the season. The Lady Mocs (23-3, 16-1) are a game up on second-place Davidson (16-9, 13-2) with three games remaining, starting with Saturday's game against Western Carolina (7-18, 5-11) at McKenzie Arena.
The 5-foot-10 Jackson, a backup guard/wing, has started one game and has averaged six points and 4.1 rebounds a game in Southern Conference play. She has played 17.6 minutes a game in league play, typically backing up Kylie Lambert, while the 5-9 Payne, the backup to starting point guard Alex Black, has averaged 15.9 minutes in SoCon games.
Jackson and Payne have come on strong late in the season, giving the Lady Mocs a very deep bench -- one that makes things happen at both ends of the floor.
"In the beginning of the season we were definitely nervous out there, but as you start to play more and start to get better acquainted with the team and how everyone plays, it gets a lot easier," said Jackson, who has more offensive rebounds (47) than defensive (41) and has nine games with at least two steals. "I love defense and I try to bring a lot of energy when I'm out there. Make plays, get steals and get my teammates going for some easy points."
Of the freshmen, Jackson has been the more consistent offensive threat, with five games with at least 10 points. Heading into Monday's 67-50 win at Georgia Southern, Payne had scored 18 points all season. Against the Eagles, she went 3-for-4 from the field, hitting a 3-pointer for the third game in a row, and scored a career-high eight points.
Payne, "Red" to the Lady Mocs, didn't score until the 12th game of the season.
"It was messing with my mind, kind of, but I just got in the gym and started shooting more," said Payne, who has 13 steals in the past eight games. "It's coming more and more each game, and I just keep working at it."
UTC will honor seniors Kayla Christopher and Kylie Lambert before Saturday's game, part of a women/men doubleheader at the Roundhouse.