Luckily for the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga men's basketball team, it was more about how the Mocs finished than how they started in their Southern Conference showdown against Mercer on Thursday night.
Because while the beginning was sub-par, the end was anything but.
The Mocs capped off an excellent second half with a 9-1 run to end the game and solidified their hold on second place with a 74-61 win in front of a loud crowd of 4,043 enthusiastic fans at McKenzie Arena.
UTC will have its final home game of the season Saturday when it hosts East Tennessee State (16-10, 8-7). The program will honor seniors Martynas Bareika, Lance Stokes and Ronrico White before the game.
The Mocs (19-9, 12-3) shot 57 percent from the field in the second half while holding the Bears to 36 percent in the final 20 minutes and 39 percent for the game. The home team had 19 assists on 23 made baskets and overcame 18 turnovers by holding a 38-27 edge on the backboards.
White had a game-high 17 points and four assists. Greg Pryor had a solid all-around game with 16 points, seven assists and seven rebounds, while Justin Tuoyo added 14 points, six rebounds and three blocked shots. Eric Robertson added 11 points for UTC, while Duke Ethridge finished with seven points, six rebounds and five blocks in 27 minutes.
T.J. Hallice led four double-figure scorers for Mercer (15-13, 10-5) with 13 points. Jibri Bryan added 12, Darious Moten 11 and Phillip Leonard 10.
The Bears' fifth starter, Ike Nwamu, scored eight points in the first 2:40 of the game but battled foul trouble, missed his final six shots and never scored again.
The crowd was loud from the beginning, but it was the 75 or so supporters who took a bus from Macon, Ga., that were cheering in the first 10 minutes of the game as the Bears jumped to a 20-9 advantage. The Mocs fought back, taking a 31-29 lead on a 3-pointer by Chuck Ester with 2:22 to go in the half, and the teams were tied at 35 at the break despite having Tuoyo and Casey Jones, the team's leading scorer for the season, on the bench with two fouls apiece.
"Those are two not good ones to have (on the bench)," UTC coach Will Wade said. "I'm not as good of a coach when those two aren't out there."
The Bears were battling their own foul trouble, with Moten, Leonard, Nwamu, Bryan and Jordan Strawberry ending the first half with two fouls apiece.
Mercer took a 40-36 lead to start the second half, but the Mocs tied the game at 44 and then after a layup by Tuoyo led for the final 12:05. They hits 10 of 12 free throws in the second half and made 17 of their final 19 after a 2-7 start.
Both coaches were talking about the upcoming conference tournament after the game.
"Two really good teams, wwo teams that are very motivated that are both still in the title hunt," Wade said. "It was a high-level game, and we may have one more like that in Asheville. It was a good game tonight; we made some free throws down the stretch and were just good enough to win."
After walking into the media room with a big box of MoonPies, Mercer coach Bob Hoffman said Thursday's atmosphere was "tremendous."
"It was a great college game," he said. "UTC is a great team; we were fortunate to beat them at home. We were right there tonight; we needed a couple of balls to bounce our way, but we could have won that game just as easy. The score doesn't say it, but it was a one-two-possession game down the stretch.
"Hopefully we'll get a chance to play them in the tournament. I love our guys; I love how they compete, and the season isn't over. We realistically can't win the conference regular-season championship, but anybody can win three games on a neutral floor, and I think there are a lot of teams in our league that can win three games."
Contact Gene Henley at email@example.com. Follow him at twitter.com/genehenleytfp.