Wiedmer: 'Neat opportunity' gets away from Chattanooga Mocs

Wiedmer: 'Neat opportunity' gets away from Chattanooga Mocs

January 3rd, 2012 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Chattanooga head basketball coach John Shulman yells out to his team during their game Monday against Tennessee in Knoxville.

Chattanooga head basketball coach John Shulman yells out...

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

KNOXVILLE -- It was surely in there somewhere Monday night, swirling around inside John Shulman's head, a memory that almost certainly remains no worse than the third best of his eight-year coaching career at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, right behind his two NCAA tournament berths.

Dec. 5, 2004: UTC 69, Tennessee 68.

Eight years later, the Mocs invaded the Thompson-Boling Arena to face the worst Vols bunch since that long-ago squad. Believe the preseason hype and this also was supposed to be Shulman's best UTC team since that 2004-05 season.

If ever the Mocs could repeat their former glory in this cavernous, half-empty building, this was the night.

Or as Shulman said of a decidedly lethargic UT crowd officially counted as 15,239: "What a neat opportunity to come in here with a dead atmosphere."

Call it a UTC blue and golden opportunity lost. With neither team necessarily playing to its preseason expectations, the Vols hit 13 3-pointers, blocked six shots, grabbed eight more rebounds and prevailed 76-63, which is almost exactly the professional oddsmakers' pregame point spread.

UTC, on the other hand, went from seven up with 6:47 to go in the opening half to 12 down at intermission, then went nine straight possessions in the second half without a field goal with the deficit at seven (61-54) and an upset somewhat there for the taking.

In that 3-minute, 19-second drought, the Mocs turned it over twice and missed everything from two-footers to 22-footers to free throws. And with those misses they missed their last, best chance to stun Big Brother for the second time in Shulman's tenure.

So UT won its fourth straight game to improve to 7-6 heading into Wednesday night's game at Memphis, and UTC fell to 6-9, its Division I win total stuck on three.

"I'm disappointed," Shulman said. "We didn't play very well. We weren't very alert defensively."

Shulman's career has been built on defense. Build a wall (around the basket). Fire (double the post). Scratch and claw for 40 minutes.

To admit that his team wasn't very alert defensively in the nonconference game the UTC fan base cares about the most is probably not what you want circulating on the cyberspace bulletin boards of restless supporters.

Neither is this quote from senior guard Keegan Bell: "We came here playing really good basketball. Our energy level wasn't good. I don't know why."

To be fair, how disappointed UTC's dwindling fan base should be in this result probably should depend on where the Vols finish in the Southeastern Conference. Losing by 13 points on the road to a team that fell to Duke by 10, to Memphis in double-overtime in Maui and by five to Pittsburgh is no disgrace.

But these same Vols lost by six in regulation at the College of Charleston, where the Mocs fell by two in double-overtime.

With Southern Conference play set to resume Thursday with three straight home games against Western Carolina, Appalachian State and Wofford, UTC must regroup swiftly if it is to regain the momemtum from last week's Dr Pepper Classic crown.

Ever the optimist, Shulman rightly said of the 12-point halftime deficit the Mocs cut by half in less than four minutes (49-43), "We didn't fold. We fought back. We were in it until the end even when we weren't very good."

That they were better at the end eight years ago, their energy level through the roof, is what surely most concerns Mocs Nation today.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6273.