Wiedmer: UTC Mocs quickly back on track

Wiedmer: UTC Mocs quickly back on track

February 2nd, 2014 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

UTC guard Casey Jones (24) drives to the basket in the first half against Furman at McKenzie Arena on Saturday.

Photo by Erin O. Smith /Times Free Press.

If you were a University of Tennessee at Chattanooga men's basketball fan the last couple of days, you couldn't help but wonder. Was Thursday night's 94-51 loss at Davidson one bad night or one very bad sign? Was the momentum from the Mocs' eight Southern Conference victories in their first eight league games now lost for good? Or did it merely need a reboot come Saturday night against fragile Furman?

At least 5,023 inquiring minds couldn't wait to reach McKenzie Arena to find out. And help out.

"First of all, I want to thank the crowd," UTC coach Will Wade said after this 67-52 Mocs win. "Thank them for showing faith in us after a loss."

Losses are one thing. Forty-three-point massacres are something else. Especially when you have only 48 hours to move on. Most especially when you don't return home until 4 a.m. Friday and your players have class at 8 a.m. Then practice, the mental scars of Davidson still fresh in your head.

"I talked about it at the beginning of yesterday's practice," Wade said late Saturday. "Then we moved on. Just kept to the normal routine. Nothing different than when we've won on Thursday."

The Mocs had won three Thursday games prior to the Davidson disaster. Won them by an average of 13.3 points. Won each one by a greater margin than the one that came before it.

But Davidson was always going to be another matter. Partly because the Wildcats are always good. Partly because the Mocs haven't been in recent years. And partly because Davidson coach Bob McKillop seemed determine to let everyone know that he intended to exit the SoCon with a flourish.

But neither Wade nor his team could afford to be consumed by that on Saturday against the Paladins. One loss could be dismissed. But two straight could become a dangerous trend for a team that hasn't reached so much as a SoCon tourney semifinal since last qualifying for the NCAA Tournament in 2009.

"We've got eight or nine games left," said Zaccheus Mason, who became the first Moc ever to collect 1,000 points, 500 rebounds and 100 blocked shots after totaling 10 points, 13 rebounds and five blocks against Furman. "You've just got to let it go."

But they are also still closer to kids than adults in terms of emotions and maturity. A 43-point loss can linger. Fester. Depress.

But not this team. Not this night. Not with 5,023 Moc Maniacs -- the first time UTC has had two 5,000-plus crowds since 2004 and the first back-to-back such crowds since 1998 -- doing their part to wash away Davidson, especially the ultimate Moc Maniac Dwayne Gass and the quietly loyal David Gibbs in the house.

"I want to single two people out tonight," Wade said before praising both DGs for their remarkable support.

"We rolled in on the bus at 4 a.m. after the Davidson loss, and both Dwayne and David were there to welcome us home. Our guys really appreciated that."

The fans really appreciated the Mocs' response, which included a 28-19 halftime lead and a 17-4 run to begin the final half. They watched Casey Jones total a stunning 18 points thanks to the kind of endless hustle plays that win championships. They saw Martynas Bareika hit four of eight 3-pointers on his way to 16 points. They watched Gee McGhee turn in one of those stat lines that any basketball junkie can appreciate: five points, five assists, four steals and three rebounds. They watched the nerveless Ronrico White score 10 points and hand out four assists in 22 near-perfect minutes.

It was all so well done that the lead swelled to a high of 24 points (63-39) with five minutes to play before Wade began to empty his bench.

A single quote to explain the excellence Wade demands from his players, all his players, every second of every game: "You could see at the end of the game why some of these guys don't play. A 24-point lead went down to 15. We had guys doing all sorts of bad stuff. That's why we've got a short rotation."

That intensity is why a one-game losing streak is now a one-game winning streak. It's also why the rest of the season yet looks bright for these Mocs, regardless of one terrible Thursday night in North Carolina.

"We were ready to get after somebody, anybody," Mason said. "We're a good team. We work hard. One loss shouldn't cause the fans to waver."

Especially when it's followed up by a 15-point win that could easily have been 24 or more.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.