Gee McGhee had three options when he caught the ball with 12 seconds to play and his team trailing by two points.
He passed to fellow University of Tennessee at Chattanooga sophomore Eric Robertson on the wing for a potential 3-point shot. A Kennesaw State defender ran out at him and Robertson chose to drive. But he couldn't get to the rim, leaving the Mocs short on the scoreboard, 73-69, but not in the intangibles necessary to challenge the bigger and more experienced Owls.
"I can't explain how far I think we can go as a team," said UTC sophomore Casey Jones, who set a career high with 17 points and grabbed nine rebounds. "We have good freshmen, our senior captain -- Coach [Will Wade] believes he can be a special player -- we're going to get a lot better with more experience."
McGhee, who also could have tried driving the lane himself or looking inside to senior Zaccheus Mason on that last possession, led UTC with 18 points and a career-high 10 rebounds, which helped UTC dominate the Owls on the glass 48-30.
Mason scored 14 points despite playing just four minutes in the first half due to foul trouble, and freshman Greg Pryor added 10 points.
"I thought our guys really battled," said Wade, the first-year coach. "It's disappointing that we couldn't come out on top. We left some plays out there in the last four, five minutes of the game."
The Mocs' last lead was at 12-10. They survived the first half with Mason and center T.J. Williams sitting with two fouls each and the Owls inching out to a five-point lead.
"I'm not helping my team by sitting on the bench," Mason said. "I have to put myself in position to help my team."
The half ended with Jones grabbing a defensive rebound at the horn and then exchanging pleasantries with Andrew Osemhen, who is 6-foot-9, 270 pounds. Jones received a technical and KSU opened the second half with two free points. The Owls (2-4) pushed their lead to 62-53 on a jump shot by Yonel Brown, who paced their scoring with 25 points.
The Mocs trimmed that lead over the next six minutes. The crowd of 3,028 began chants of "Defense!" and the Mocs responded with a steal by McGhee followed by a missed layup from Jones. But the crowd roared again when Mason dunked that miss. The senior tied the game at 68 with an 18-foot jumper with 3:23 to go.
But UTC never took the lead. Delbert Love hit one free throw and Jones answered. Mason had a pass intercepted and dunked by Willy Kouassi with 20 seconds to go, giving the Owls a two-point lead.
Then they prevented Robertson from getting a potential game-tying shot.
"The lane was cluttered and they made a play," Wade said. "This really hurt because it was there for the taking. Our guys laid it out there. We battled back and we really take pride in owning our territory.
"This is a barometer of where we are."
Contact David Uchiyama at email@example.com or 423-757-6484. Follow him at twitter.com/UchiyamaCTFP.