ATHENS, Ga. -- The next time someone tells you they don't play quality basketball in the Southeastern Conference, remind them that while No. 18 UCLA did indeed lead the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga by 22 points at halftime last week, Georgia led the Mocs by 30 at Monday night's intermission.
Then it got worse, the margin growing as high as 37 in the final half before UTC hit its first basket of the period. The Auburn football team couldn't have conjured up a miracle to win this one and neither did the Mocs, eventually losing 87-56.
"It's embarrassing," said Martynas Bareika, who led UTC with 14 points off the bench. "We got down 10, 15, we got scared. We didn't really battle. Not everybody, but some guys didn't think we could win."
Added first-year coach Will Wade: "We have too many front-runners. We have a losing mentality in this program and we're going to change it. Guys get down 15, they don't think they're going to win. They're resigned to their fate."
But Wade saw some reason for optimism in this defeat. He needed to look no further than Lance Stokes to declare, "The effort was better tonight."
With the Mocs down 54-20 less than four minutes into the second half, Stokes dove for a ball that was rolling out of bounds under UTC's basket. He wound up crashing into the rich folks' seats along the baseline, knocking a drink out of one gentleman's hand and spraying ice cubes everywhere.
Asked afterward what was in that cup, Stokes grinned and said, "I hope it was water."
And the junior didn't want to take too much credit for such hustle, saying of the play, "That's what Coach Wade is trying to instill in all of us. A never-say-die mentality. We're not supposed to play the score, just try to play Chattanooga basketball."
Even winning coach Mark Fox saw some glimpses in that after watching his own young team improve to 3-4 for the season as UTC fell to 3-6.
"It was a really good night for us," Fox said. "It was a good win for us against a team that I thought was a really hard-playing team."
Playing hard is nowhere near the same as playing well, of course. But in Stokes, who finished with seven points, five rebounds and two steals in 27 inspired minutes, Wade did find reason for hope.
"That was a great play," Wade said of the Stokes dive out of bounds. "That's how we're supposed to play. But we've got to have five guys doing that. Right now, we've got two or three, maybe one or two more if their shots are falling. We've got to have more guys jump in the boat with Lance."
Wade was also less than thrilled at the lack of reaction by Stokes' teammates to his hustle.
"Not enough guys were excited on the bench when Lance did that," he said. "We're going to start messing with some lineups."
Nor did he want to hear excuses. Even if the Mocs had a few. Such as arriving in Atlanta from last week's West Coast trip at 6:30 Saturday morning. Then busing home. Then getting on a bus Monday afternoon at 1:15 on campus before getting stuck in Atlanta traffic for so long that they didn't arrive at Stegeman Coliseum until nearly 7 p.m. for a 7:35 tip. Dang rubberneckers.
"It made for a short warm-up, but it didn't change our mindset," Stokes said. "We can't have that as an excuse."
The real excuse is that short and slow -- which UTC has an abundance of -- is no way to upset any SEC school on the road.
Or as one Georgia fan wrote on a 24/7 message board late in the first half, "No one should let us do this to them."
But when you're on the short end of height, quickness and skill -- at one point, the Bulldogs had hit 22 of 38 field-goal tries to UTC's 6 of 38 -- people can do to you pretty much as they please.
Yet even Wade saw one bright spot on an otherwise helpless, hapless night beyond the $90,000 check the Mocs earned for this whipping.
"Luckily, in our league (the Southern Conference) we probably won't be shooting over that kind of length," he said.
Especially if there are enough guys in the boat with Stokes by then to sail around such obstacles.
Contact Mark Wiedmer at email@example.com.