What is possibly the toughest two-game road swing of the season for the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga men's basketball team starts tonight.
Southern Conference leader Furman, which has won six straight games, hosts the Mocs at 7 in Greenville, S.C. The Paladins (16-8, 9-2) hold a one-game edge over East Tennessee State (18-6, 8-3) and the Mocs (17-6, 8-3), who after tonight turn their attention to Saturday's 7 p.m. matchup at Wofford (12-13, 7-5), winner of three straight.
On UTC's last visit to Furman, the Paladins won 70-55 to hand the Mocs one of their three conference losses for the 2015-16 season. The Mocs have won both series meetings since, though, including an 80-64 victory on Jan. 7 that is Furman's most lopsided loss this season.
But the Paladins have been tough at home in recent seasons, winning 14 straight SoCon games on their own court. Still, in coach Matt McCall's two seasons at UTC, the Mocs have been one of the league's best road teams, going 15-8 overall and 9-4 against SoCon opponents away from McKenzie Arena.
"We know it's going to be a tough environment. It has been all season everywhere we go," UTC senior Tre' McLean said. "The student section is probably going to be packed and everybody's going to be real excited. The crowd will be into the game, but we know the crowd can't win games. You've still got to get between the lines and still got to play."
McCall said little things become far more important on the road, and he stressed three: not turning the ball over, rebounding and guarding the 3-point line. The Mocs allowed only five 3-pointers in a Jan. 28 loss at East Tennessee State, but they turned the ball over 16 times and were out-rebounded by 15 in a 76-71 loss.
In a five-point loss at UNC Greensboro on Jan. 2, UTC struggled with perimeter defense. The Spartans made seven 3-pointers — including four in the second half, when they outscored the Mocs 41-30.
"Our mentality this week is all business," McCall said. "We want to get better. We're not worried about the crowd, not worried about the environment. We've got to focus on our job. Furman, when you take the crowd away from it, is a really good team that's playing as well if not better than anyone in our league, so it'll be a great challenge."
Something may have clicked in UTC its past two games. The Mocs started sharing the ball better (34 assists in the two games) and forced 34 turnovers (converting those into 39 points) in home wins over UNCG and Western Carolina.
"We're just focused on playing our game," UTC senior Greg Pryor said. "We're not focused on what happened the last couple of games. We want to continue to play well, the right way — for each other — and the best will come out that play that way, not selfishly and trying to win the game individually.
"We feel like we prepare for these type situations, going into these type of environments. We've been preparing for this since summertime, so we'll just continue our preparation as going in, keeping our composure and not letting the environment rattle us."
Contact Gene Henley at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @genehenleytfp.