ASHEVILLE, N.C. - A season of surprising success came to a stunning end Saturday in the Southern Conference men's basketball tournament.
The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga won 10 straight games in one stretch and earned the No. 2 seed in the tournament but fell 62-55 to seventh-seeded Georgia Southern in the quarterfinals.
The Mocs' season first season under coach Will Wade is over with a record of 18-14.
On their way out of the conference, the Eagles ushered an end to UTC's year by switching to a 2-3 zone defense and finding an offensive spark in the final minutes. The Mocs led by as many as nine points in the second half.
"Up until about four minutes were left, we kept them at bay," Wade said. "We fought. We played well. It wasn't enough tonight."
Wade, who authored a turnaround from 13-19 last year, grabbed his coat and put it on with 3.5 seconds left and GSU guard Brian Holmes heading to the free-throw line.
Senior Zaccheus Mason, who earned first-team All-SoCon selections for his play in the regular season, scored 21 points in his final game playing for UTC.
Sophomore Casey Jones added 12 points. No other Moc reached double figures in scoring, but sophomore Gee McGee grabbed 12 rebounds.
The Eagles (15-18), who advance to face the winner of the later Wofford-Citadel game, were led by 17 points from Tre Bussey. Jelani Hewitt scored 12 points and Holmes added 10. Both Bussey and Hewitt made sure to give Mason a hug of appreciation after the game.
"It got late in the shot clock and their guards made really nice plays," Wade said. "They made some great plays down the stretch."
GSU's zone defense in the final minutes stalled UTC's offense. And the Mocs defense could do little to stop GSU's attack. The Eagles beat the shot clock with tough shots on three straight possessions. They closed the game with two points on nine straight possessions before Holmes missed the last free throw of the game.
That comprised an 19-11 run over the last 6 minutes, 32 seconds of the game. Once UTC trailed by three at 49-46, it never got closer.
"It's tough to keep our guys down," GSU coach Mark Byington said. "We beat a very good team. Will has done a terrific job."
The Mocs and Eagles displayed some of the nerves that come with tournament competition. Both teams entered averaging more than 71 points per game but combined to score 15 points in the first eight minutes Saturday including an impressive two-hand dunk by Jones.
UTC never trailed in the first half but couldn't pull away from the Eagles. The Mocs inched ahead 27-19 with Mason hitting a 3-pointer following an offensive rebound, Stokes adding an inside bucket and McGhee hitting a free throw at the 3:15 mark.
But UTC did not score again in the first half and headed into halftime with a 27-24 lead.
The Eagles tied the game at 27 about 90 seconds into the final half. UTC eased ahead again by four, then went on a 7-2 run for a 38-29 lead with 14:20 to play.
Wade pulled Mason and Martynas Bareika to get them a few minutes of rest. GSU climbed back within 38-36. Baynham capped a quick 9-0 spurt to tie the game for a third time, but Mason calmed UTC with back-to-back 3-pointers sandwiching one from Curtis Diamond, who tried to excite the GSU fans, who were outnumbered at least 3-to-1 by UTC fans in attendance.
Baynham gave GSU its first lead at 47-46 with 4:42 to play on a post move. Then the deluge continued down the stretch.
"We worked had this season," Mason said. "We did everything Coach Wade and his staff asked. The things he brought to us were difficult. As a team we fought to get through it. There's nothing we wouldn't do to be successful.
"That's why it hurts to much."
Contact David Uchiyama at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6484. Follow him at twitter.com/UchiyamaCTFP.