Wiedmer: Tough practices make for tougher Mocs

Wiedmer: Tough practices make for tougher Mocs

February 15th, 2014 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Will Wade didn't wait long to discuss the days leading up to his University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Mocs' 83-73 victory over Western Carolina on Friday night.

"Tough week for our guys," the first-year coach said. "Grueling week."

How tough?

"Toughest week we've had since before Christmas," Wade replied.

Senior forward Zaccheus Mason swiftly confirmed his coach's assessment, quite possibly if for no reason more logical than self-preservation. For if the players didn't confirm the past week's harshness, Wade might make the week ahead even worse.

"There was definitely more up-and-down work, more drills," said Mason, who led the Mocs with 23 points. "We knew it was going to be that way. Coach was pretty upset all the way back on the bus after the Samford loss last week."

So they ran. And they hustled. And eagerly awaited the next game day, which had to be moved from Thursday to Friday because of the snow and frozen roads.

But when time came to snap the two-game losing streak, they were ready.

"We had talked about getting back our edge, getting back our toughness," said sophomore Gee McGhee, who was clearly the toughest Moc this night after ripping down 15 rebounds and scoring 16 points. "We just haven't been as sharp mentally as we were tonight."

No one would say this was perfect. Not when the creators of Chaos turned it over four more times than they forced errors (13 to 9). Not when the usually smart and savvy Casey Jones fouled a Catamount with 21 seconds to go and a 10-point lead.

There were also those twin 16-point UTC leads -- one in each half -- that became fragile four-point cushions before order (or Chaos, if you prefer) was restored.

But that would be a negative, and at least one reason for that negative was as simple as the large number of fouls called on the Mocs, especially Mason, Ronrico White and Martynas Bareika, who each sat at least six minutes of the first half with two fouls.

Yet one could also say there is much to like about being able to charge back to a double-digit lead after allowing far bigger cushions to melt away. Basketball is a game of runs, often many runs, and while the Mocs allowed the Catamounts to score on 13 of their final 15 first-half possessions (according to Wade), they also got stops on 10 straight possessions at one point.

Down 4-0 early, they ran off 17 straight points. WCU within 42-38 at the break, UTC stormed in front 65-49 eight minutes into the final half.

Because the Catamounts are coached by the talented and tenacious Larry Hunter, no lead was safe. After all, Western had entered this game with a 7-3 Southern Conference mark and a respectable 14-11 overall record, not that far behind the Mocs' 9-2 and 15-11 marks at the opening tip.

That UTC now stands 10-2 and 16-11 with only four league games to go bodes well for its chances to lock up a second seed for the league tourney, thus avoiding expected regular-season champ Davidson until the SoCon final.

And with two home games to play, we can hope the crowds far exceed Friday night's 3,209 total, though that should come with an asterisk, given that it fell on Valentine's Day.

"I guess I was a little bit disappointed [that the game had to be rescheduled]," said Ashli Skiles, who wore a pale blue sweater with a large red heart on it as she cheered the Mocs with her husband and their 9-year-old daughter Reese.

"We were going to go out and eat, then maybe go home and watch a movie. We're still going out to eat, though."

And how would Wade have spent his Valentine's night if the Mocs had played Thursday night?

"Recruiting," he said. "I'd planned to go recruiting."

Instead, he led his team to its 10th SoCon win in 12 games. The opportunity for No. 11 comes Thursday against Georgia Southern. After that come just three more regular-season games -- road trips to UNC Greensboro and Western with a home finale against Appalachian State scheduled for March 1.

"This is how we need to play," Mason said. "With an edge, with a chip on our shoulder. That's when we're at our best."

So would he say that he and his teammates played with big hearts for Valentine's Day?

"Absolutely," he said with a smile. "Absolutely."

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com