CHARLESTON, S.C. - This is what progress looks like.
The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga endured The Citadel's best half of the season, never led until 100 seconds remained and rode the broad shoulders of senior Zaccheus Mason to an 82-78 Southern Conference basketball win on Monday at The Citadel.
"We couldn't have won this game three months ago," coach Will Wade said between smiles after the game. "This was great. This really showed progress for our team.
"The guys thought they were going to win. We hung in there and got stops down the stretch."
Mason dominated the Bulldogs with 30 points and 14 rebounds, which generated talk between Citadel officials about whether he could be the Southern Conference player of the year.
He made a great case for at least player of the week. Mason scored 50 points, grabbed 27 rebounds and blocked nine shots in two UTC road victories.
"I'm really proud of Z," Wade said. "If he's not the SoCon player of the week, I don't know who is. He carried us."
Sophomore Casey Jones added 14 points and eight rebounds while junior guard Ronrico White scored 13 points. Ashton Moore led the Bulldogs with 21 points, and Brian White scored 20.
They couldn't outdo Mason in the end, only the beginning. Mason went the first 14 minutes of the game without a point. He finished the first half 2-of-10 from the floor against various Citadel defenses designed to keep the ball out of his hands.
"It was hard to get a feel for how they were playing me and the defenses they were in," Mason said. "They even doubled me a couple times. It was hard to get involved in the game.
"We have a ton of offensive sets and I give credit to Coach to figure out what plays to call to get me going offensively."
The host Bulldogs (4-12, 0-2) never trailed in the first half and led by 10 points with seven minutes to go before the break. Wade called for time and lit into his players about defending and rebounding when they fell behind 30-20.
The Bulldogs led 42-34 at halftime. It's the most points they scored in the first half this season, and they did so by shooting 63 percent from the floor and 6-of-9 from the 3-point line.
"I knew it was going to be a dogfight when we gave up [a basket] and-one in transition," Wade said of Citadel's second possession of the game. "They stepped up and shot it with confidence."
Then Mason proved he's worthy of early SoCon consideration for postseason awards. He scored 17 of UTC's first 19 points of the second half, and he recorded his fifth straight double-double. He powered through two determined defenders and dunked with two hands to get UTC within 54-53.
"I surprised myself on that dunk," Mason said. "I thought about laying up."
Other Mocs started scoring when The Citadel adjusted its interior defense to keep the ball out of Mason's hands. White, Jones and Gee McGhee combined to do the scoring.
Then junior forward Martynas Bareika buried a 3-pointer from the left against a 2-3 zone to give UTC a 77-76 lead with 1:40 to play -- its first lead of the game.
"It came down to getting stops," White said. "We couldn't go bucket for bucket with them."
The Citadel regained a one-point lead on free throws by Moore. Then Jones scored inside on a designed out-of-bounds play that put UTC up 79-78 with 50 seconds to go.
A miss rebounded by Mason led to Greg Pryor hitting one free throw. Another Citadel miss, once again rebounded by Mason, led to two free throws for him and the final 82-78 margin.
"We have different guys who do it every night," Wade said. "Well, Z does it every night."
Contact David Uchiyama at email@example.com or 423-757-6484. Follow him at twitter.com/UchiyamaCTFP.