Mocs defeat WCU, lead SoCon North

The same basketball team that lost by 41 points at Louisville, then by 12 at home to Jackson State and by 21 at Florida International is in first place.

Yes, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga is in first place.

The Mocs are in that position in the Southern Conference North Division after holding off Western Carolina 67-65 on Saturday in McKenzie Arena.

They're in that spot because they beat Appalachian State on Thursday in one of their best games of the year and battled for a victory in an ugly game against the Catamounts.

And they'll be in first for a while because they do not play another SoCon game until Dec. 17 at Elon.

"It feels good to beat and be ahead of the two teams that were picked ahead of us," said point guard Keegan Bell, who has 19 assists and a pair of turnovers in two SoCon games. "We can't be satisfied, but we can enjoy it."

The Mocs last started the SoCon 2-0 during the 2007-08 season. Defending conference champion Wofford lost its two December games before winning the crown in Charlotte this March.

"We didn't have our 'A' game, and they probably didn't either," UTC coach John Shulman said. "But you have to figure out a way to win your game.

"We didn't play great, but we gutted it out."

The Mocs sank 10 of 12 free throws in the final 59 seconds Saturday. WCU's Mike Williams, who led all players with 21 points, hit a 3-pointer with 0.6 second left to provide the final margin.

"Tomorrow morning when I wake up, it's going to look beautiful," Shulman said. "We were not as sharp, but it was good enough."

Bell led UTC with 13 points, including two on a backdoor layup on a play that Shulman called from the sideline. The bucket gave UTC a 57-53 lead with 1:23 to play.

"That was a great call, and not just because it was for me," Bell said. "Give [DeAntre Jefferson] credit because that's a tough pass for a 5-man to make."

Junior Chris Early scored 12 points, Ricky Taylor had 11 points and Jefferson grabbed 11 rebounds in what started as a sloppy game.

UTC led 23-16 at the break after the teams combined to shoot 13-of-54 from the floor with WCU shooting 15.2 percent. Plus, they combined for 18 turnovers - 13 by the Mocs after WCU didn't have one in the first 12 minutes.

"It was a lot different tonight than Thursday," Taylor said. "Our offense wasn't there tonight. We made turnovers and our shots weren't falling. We had to remember that defense is our foundation, and our defense saved us today."

WCU opened the second half with an 11-2 run and took a 27-25 lead after Jeremy Saffore missed an uncontested dunk that led to an open 3-pointer by Williams.

Yet the game was tied at 48 with less than six minutes to play. Then Taylor and Early combined for a 7-5 spurt before Bell laid in his backdoor pass from Jefferson off the glass and UTC made its late-game free throws.

"I'm ecstatic about this win," Shulman said. "Ecstatic."