As the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga wrapped up preparation for the Southern Conference women's basketball tournament that starts Thursday in Asheville, North Carolina, confidence was high among the surging Mocs.
After winning their past five games and sharing the SoCon regular-season title with Samford and UNC Greensboro at 10-4 in league play, the Mocs believe they are capable of coming home with a championship all their own.
Doing so would require three wins in four days, though, with the semifinals Friday and the title game Sunday at noon. For a team that relies heavily on its starters - UTC's first five averaged more than 30 minutes a game in SoCon play during the regular season - the physical concern is real.
Senior guard Lakelyn Bouldin, who has played all 40 minutes in each of the past three games for the Mocs, smiled when asked if she could remember the last time she had to watch from the bench.
"Well, I only played a half against Wofford because I was in foul trouble," she said of the Mocs' 51-49 road win on Feb. 15. "I didn't like it. Really, we're used to it. We just have to make sure we take care of bodies and do whatever it takes to recover after games."
These second-seeded Mocs (11-17), who open tourney play against seventh-seeded Mercer (7-22) at 3:30 p.m. at Harrah's Cherokee Center, seem to thrive on the heavy workload. A team that found ways to lose during a 1-13 start is now a cohesive unit that shares the ball and fills up the stat sheet.
In wins over Samford and East Tennessee State University to close the regular season, the Mocs had nine of 10 starters from those games score in double figures and grab at least four rebounds. Bouldin, UTC's leading scorer this season, did not have a point in the first half of this past Saturday's home game against ETSU as Bria Dial and Eboni Williams took turns early leading the offense.
Bouldin exploded for nine points in a four-minute span to end the third quarter, though, and then Abbey Cornelius took over in the fourth before senior NaKeia Burks scored four points at the end to seal the win.
"I think we have a very diverse group, which gives everybody an opportunity to step up in games," Bouldin said. "All in all, we just trust in each other. I know if I'm not doing well, someone can step up and get it done."
SOCON WOMEN'S TOURNAMENT
At Asheville, N.C.Thursday's schedule* Western Carolina vs. Samford, 11 a.m.* Wofford vs. Furman, 1:15 p.m.* Mercer vs. UTC, 3:30 p.m.* UNC Greensboro vs. ETSU, 5:45 p.m.
At some point in the next few days, the heavy workload could become a factor. The most logical path to some rest for the starters would lie in a comfortable win over Mercer, but the Bears won when the Mocs visited in late January and took the recent meeting at McKenzie Arena down to the final minute before UTC prevailed 58-52.
"It's all mental, honestly," Burks said. "I believe we could play all 120 minutes (at the tournament) if we have to, I really do. We feel really good. We're working on the things we need to work on, and we're ready to move forward and bring back a championship."
Rest or no rest, the Mocs enter the tournament full of confidence they are ready to meet any physical - or mental - challenge ahead of them. After all, a team that easily could have given up on the season instead added to its crowded trophy case with the regular-season title, the 22nd in program history.
With the SoCon's postseason championship, the Mocs would secure a berth in the NCAA tournament.
"I feel like we are experts in adversity," coach Katie Burrows said. "We went to the depths in nonconference play, so when we found ourselves down 13 at Wofford, it was nothing. We had come back from worse things."
Of course, there are seven other teams aiming for the same result in Asheville, including top-seeded Samford (15-14) and third-seeded UNCG (21-8). The Mocs split the season series with both the Bulldogs and the Spartans, losing on the road in both cases.
"Everybody is 0-0 (in the postseason), so if we want to achieve our ultimate goal, we're going to have to win three games in four days," Burrows said. "We're all gunning for the same thing, so that's our unfinished business.
"We've come this far, why not go all the way?"
Contact Lindsey Young at email@example.com or 423-757-6296. Follow him on Twitter @youngsports22.