One basketball team seemed slightly more frazzled by the pace of play Thursday evening. Its players turned the ball over more than normal and couldn't get the looks they were accustomed to.
The other team was the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
The Mocs never trailed in defeating Virginia Military Institute 86-64 in front of 3,190 fans at McKenzie Arena. The Southern Conference win, coupled with a Mercer loss against Western Carolina and a Wofford win over Furman, puts the Mocs (13-7, 6-1) in a tie for first with Wofford, which beat them on Jan. 5.
The Mocs host UNC Greensboro as the second part of a Saturday doubleheader at 6. The UTC women host Furman at 3.
VMI (7-13, 3-6) uses an all-out full-court press style of play, forcing turnovers and jacking up as many shots as possible. The pace of the play was closer to their liking Thursday, as shots went up every 14.8 seconds. Coming into the game, the Keydets shot the ball every 13 seconds while the Mocs averaged shooting every 18 ticks of the clock.
With easy shots taken away, VMI shot only 31 percent from the field and finished three shots below its average. The Keydets lead the nation with over 11 3-pointers made per game but were 7-for-25 Thursday. They also turned the ball over 22 times, which led to 23 UTC points despite the fact the Mocs never applied a full-court press.
"Defense is something that we pride ourselves on," UTC's Eric Robertson said. "We want to make sure the team doesn't score, because that gives us the best opportunity to win."
UTC turned the ball over only 10 times, while shooting 48 percent from the field. Four players finished in double figures, led by Robertson with 17 points. The conference's leader in 3-point percentage didn't do anything to lose any ground, connecting on all three of his long-range attempts.
Ronrico White had 15 points and three assists for UTC, while Casey Jones had 13 points and three steals. Justin Tuoyo added 10 points, seven rebounds, four blocks and two steals.
"Their style of play is always fast-paced. It's like you're always in transition offense or defense, like a practice setting," White said. "We were always finding the open guy; the teams they beat had a lot of turnovers. We're not a selfish team: We took care of the ball, and when we broke the press, we had either 3-on-2 or 2-on-1 situations."
Coach Will Wade instructed his players to get into the paint as much as possible, to prevent from taking quick shots out of the press that could lead to run-outs for VMI. The Keydets had a couple of quick baskets immediately after UTC scores in the early going, but the Mocs did a much better job of getting back and taking the quick-hitters away as the game went on.
The Mocs held a 50-28 advantage on points in the paint.
"I thought our guys did a nice job," Wade said. "Our players like it; it takes a lot of control out of my hands. I do a lot of my coaching in the timeouts; most of it is players making plays. There's very little coaching done, because you don't know what they're going to do, so you can't set anything up.
"The more we play against them in the league, the better we'll get. There's only so much you can do to simulate that and prepare for that."
After a layup by Jones in the game's first minute that broke a 2-all tie, the Mocs never trailed. They quickly built a 10-point lead in the first half and led 24-10 at one point, but the Keydets had a 14-3 run to trim the deficit to three. The Mocs withstood that surge and led 41-31 after a tip-in by Tre McLean.
The lead never dipped below double digits in the second half. Duke Ethridge had three dunks of the highlight variety, and the UTC lead peaked at 23 after a pair of Greg Pryor free throws made it 77-54 with 5:24 to go.
VMI was led by Phillip Anglade's 16 points and seven rebounds, while Julian Eleby added 10 points.
Contact Gene Henley at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at twitter.com/genehenleytfp.