It might have been "throwback day" at Maclellan Gymnasium on Saturday afternoon for the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga women's basketball team, but pretty soon it felt just any other game: The Mocs won.
Freshman Aryanna Gilbert scored a career-high 14 points, and the Mocs rode a hot start to a 69-41 win over Appalachian State in front of a crowd of 1,778 fans. The crowd got to feel nostalgic throughout the game, as halftime was filled with trips back in Maclellan history, grouped with the No. 1 song of the year with each moment.
So while Bon Jovi's "Shot Through the Heart" played over the loudspeakers, UTC was delivering a similar-type fate to the Lady Mountaineers, who nearly upset the Mocs when the teams played in Boone, falling 73-68 in overtime. Saturday's win was the 16th straight, 35th consecutive at home and 28th straight in Southern Conference play for the Mocs, and it gave them their third consecutive 20-win season.
"Up there, App shot so well, and we didn't play our best basketball," said UTC senior forward Taylor Hall, who had 11 points, a game-high 10 rebounds and five assists. "They mixed their defenses up and it caused us some problems, but today I thought we handled things. We came out with more energy, and it showed on the end result."
By the 15:20 mark of the first half, UTC (20-3, 12-0) held a 13-2 lead, and Gilbert -- who entered the contest averaging 3.7 points per game -- already had eight points. Video study in preparation for the game showed that the 5-foot-9 freshman would have some opportunities in back cuts, and that proved true, as she finished 7-for-7 from the field.
It was the second-best shooting performance in program history, bettered only by Susan Lance (now Crownover), who was 9-for-9 against Appalachian State back in 1987.
"We saw how they ran a triangle-and-two defense, and Coach [Jim] Foster told me to cut to the basket," Gilbert said. "I just took advantage of being open today."
Appalachian State coach Darcie Vincent expected Gilbert to be open throughout the game, because it was a part of the game plan. What she didn't expect was for the Lady Mountaineers to shoot 24 percent from the field in the first half, and 30 percent for the game. Maryah Sydnor, the conference's leading scorer at 20.5 points per game, was held to six points on 3-for-10 shooting while being guarded by Gilbert.
"We were the only team in the conference that had given them any type of scare, but this was more of a game of luxury for us," Vincent said. "It was time to do something special. You had two old Southern Conference teams playing each other in the regular season for the last time, and as the competitor I am, I would have thrived on this game, but our big focus is only Monday [against Samford]. That's a big game for us because a win there gives us a chance of a bye in the first round of the conference tournament. [Gilbert] doesn't score at all for them, and she has eight points from the jump.
"They have players step up when they need to, and that competely changed the course of the game. That and the fact we couldn't do anything on the other end of the court."
The Mocs' lead was 40-16 at halftime, as they had 12 assists on 14 made field goals. The second half got a little sloppy in ball-handling for the hosts, yet by the final buzzer they had added four points to their halftime margin after holding as much as a 39-point lead.
Guard Meghan Downes scored all 11 of her points in the first half on 4-for-4 shooting. Post Jasmine Joyner continued her solid play, getting more minutes as Faith Dupree recovers from an ankle injury. The freshman finished with six rebounds and three blocks, bumping her season total in the latter to 23.
"I thought our energy was good in the first 35 minutes," Foster said. 'We played very good defensively and we moved the ball well. The last few minutes, we had a couple of young players that got out of kilter, but I thought we played very well defensively."
Keke Cooper led the Lady Mountaineers (9-13, 6-6) with 10 points.
UTC hosts Western Carolina at 7 p.m. Monday.
Contact Gene Henley at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6311. Follow him at twitter.com/genehenleytfp.