Wiedmer: Rico White gives Mocs a chance to win nightly

Wiedmer: Rico White gives Mocs a chance to win nightly

January 10th, 2014 by Mark Wiedmer in Sportscolumns

Ronrico White (11) of UTC runs to regain control of the ball during the basketball game between UTC and Maine in the Dr Pepper Classic at McKenzie Arena at UTC in this file photo. The Mocs won the tournament.

Photo by Maura Friedman/Times Free Press.

Rico White's mother texted University of Tennessee at Chattanooga basketball coach Will Wade a couple of days ago, discussing her son's health.

"She said it's hard for her to watch any time he hits the floor," Wade said as he recalled his exchange with Rhonda White.

"I said, 'I cringe, too.'"

After Thursday night's 90-81 victory over Samford, a win to lift the Mocs (3-0 in league play) to the top of the Southern Conference by a half-game and 9-8 overall, the entire Mocs Nation would no doubt text, "We cringe, too," when it comes to the junior White's health following a serious hip injury.

After all, without White's 28 points and four assists -- including going 12-for-12 from the foul line -- UTC might well have lost for the first time in five games rather than winning a fifth straight heading into Saturday night's visit from Wofford.

Without White, the Mocs might still be wandering around in the basketball wilderness they inhabited for the season's first nine games, which White missed as UTC went 3-6. That includled an awful night at Georgia, when the Blue and Gold fell 86-57, trailing 53-17 early in the second half.

"He's like having a coach on the floor," said Wade, whose squad is 6-2 since White returned to the floor on Dec. 10 against Hiwassee. "He has a calming influence."

He certainly calmed the nerves of the 3,097 Moc Maniacs inside McKenzie on Thursday after Samford whittled a 19-point UTC lead to a slender six points with 38 seconds to go. From that point forward, White swished all six of his free throws. The Bulldogs never drew closer than five the rest of the way and never with the ball.

"It helps when you can bring Rico off the bench," deadpanned Wade, who first put White into the game with 16:19 to go in the opening half, then kept him on the floor for all but seven of the remaining 36 minutes.

Added Samford coach Bennie Seltzer: "Ronrico White's a kid who's definitely a starter in this league. I thought he was awesome tonight."

Nor was the UTC marketing department apparently without some kind of premonition about White's career night, which included seven more points than he'd previously scored in a game and eight points ahead of his season high against Maine in the Dr Pepper Classic final 12 days ago.

Anyone purchasing a $2 program to the Samford game could stare at three color photos of White on its cover.

"We really didn't know what we'd get," Wade said of White's early attempts to play following hip surgery. "But after UAB we were convinced he could help us."

How much has White helped? Over the five games the Mocs have played and won since that respectable UAB road loss (67-52), he has averaged exactly 17 points and nearly 25 minutes a night.

"Rico's a great scorer, a great leader," said sophomore Gee McGhee, who finished with 11 points, nine rebounds, four assists and two steals Thursday. "He sees the floor. He keeps us in order."

White is not the only reason for UTC's turnaround. Wade's "Chaos" -- the coach's nickname for his full-court pressure attack -- is beginning to overwhelm Mocs opponents in the way it initially seemed to drain his own team.

Nor can any story be written about UTC these days without mentioning senior Zaccheus Mason, who posted his sixth straight double-double with his 16 points and 10 rebounds against the Bulldogs.

"We kind of depend on those double-doubles now," Wade said.

To be sure, Thursday night was not as easy as it might have been. This UTC team is not yet good enough to make anything easy for 40 minutes. Certain layups were fumbled out of bounds. Opposing 3-point shooters were ignored. Come time to play the clock, these guys far too often still attack, attack, attack, displaying the unwelcome side of Chaos.

But such hustle and heart also have produced five straight wins, as well as one wonderful comeback story in White.

"Scoring is the last thing I worry about," Cover Boy said. "I just want to win."

It shows.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com