UTC senior Abbey Cornelius gets her championship moment at SoCon tourney

AP photo by Kathy Kmonicek / UTC players celebrate while holding their commemorative NCAA Division I women's basketball tournament ticket after beating Wofford in the SoCon tourney final Sunday in Asheville, N.C. The Mocs improved to 19-0 in SoCon title games and will be part of March Madness for the first time since making the NCAA field in 2017.

ASHEVILLE, N.C. — Abbey Cornelius looked at Shawn Poppie with 1:25 remaining in Sunday afternoon’s Southern Conference women's basketball championship game. The veteran player and the first-year head coach for the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga nodded their heads, with the prevailing thought simply, “Let’s finish this.”

UTC would do just that, beating Wofford 63-53 to reach the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2017, but at the time of that exchange between Cornelius and her coach, the Mocs weren't quite there yet.

They led 60-49 with SoCon freshman of the year Raven Thompson at the free-throw line, though, and in that moment, five years of frustration caused by falling short of the standard set by former Mocs players and coaches was mere seconds away from disappearing for Cornelius and graduate assistant coach Liz Wood, who have been with the program since the 2018-19 campaign.

That last minute-plus was going to hit differently for Cornelius. Everyone wants to win a championship, of course, but much like David Jean-Baptiste a year ago with the UTC men’s team, having gone through the disappointing seasons was only going to make the return to prominence that much sweeter. After all, Cornelius has spoke in the past about walking in McKenzie Arena and looking up to the rafters where banners detail the dominance of a program that was 18-0 in SoCon title games — and knowing she hadn’t been part of one.

But after those 85 seconds, all that changed for the 6-foot-2 forward from Knoxville, who as a prep standout at Hardin Valley Academy had been coached by Jennifer Wilson Galloway — a member of the UTC Athletics Hall of Fame who as a player helped the Mocs reach three NCAA tournaments.

“I don’t even know how to describe the emotion. Probably just pure joy,” said Cornelius, who had nine rebounds, six points and three blocks Sunday and was named to the all-tournament team. “This is what I came to Chattanooga to do, that I get to do with these girls. (Senior guard) Audrey (Canter) is my roommate and my best friend, so we got to do this together. There’s no better feeling.”

As the buzzer sounded at Harrah's Cherokee Center, signaling the end of the Mocs’ recent futility — they were 7-23 overall in 2021-22, the worst season in program history — and perhaps the beginning of another run of success, hugs were shared and tears were shed. And in Poppie’s first season, the Mocs are champs. Again.

Second-seeded UTC's win over top-seeded Wofford was a complete turnaround of the two regular-season meetings, which were swept by the Terriers by an average of 16 points.

UTC (20-11) took Wofford (22-9) out of its offensive identity this time, with Sigrun Olafsdottir basically playing a box-and-one defense on SoCon player of the year Rachael Rose and allowing Helen Matthews, who has averaged 9.2 points per game this season, room to shoot. Matthews finished with a game-high 25 points on 24 shots before fouling out, but Rose was limited to 15 points, with 10 coming in the fourth quarter as the Mocs pulled away.

Thompson, the first freshman named most outstanding player of the tournament since 1993, had a team-high 19 points and nine rebounds. All-SoCon selection Yazz Wazeerud-Din added 16 points, and Addie Porter chipped in 13 points, 10 rebounds and three assists, with both joining Thompson and Cornelius on the all-tournament team.

UTC won all three of its tournament games by double digits — the Mocs beat seventh-seeded Furman 63-52 on Thursday and third-seeded East Tennessee State 69-40 on Friday — and with a day of rest and no real foul trouble, Poppie was able to let the starters work almost from start to finish. Olafsdottir, Porter and Wazeerud-Din played 40 minutes and Cornelius and Thompson were on the court for 38.

Wofford took a similar approach but didn't get the same result.

The Mocs, now 19-0 in SoCon title game, will wait for Selection Sunday next weekend, when the 68-team field for the NCAA tournament will be revealed and they’ll learn their seed and destination. Wherever it is, they'll hope for the program's first win in March Madness since a first-round victory against Rutgers 19 years ago.

“This was really fun, especially with it being my first year,” Thompson said. “We gave it our all for 40 minutes, played hard, and we played together.”

Wofford led 17-9 after the first quarter, but UTC headed to halftime up 31-29 after a Cornelius layup on an assist from Wazeerud-Din at the end of the second quarter. The score was 49-36 entering the fourth, when UTC's advantage grew to a game-high 14 at one point.

Afterward, Poppie said he was up “late Saturday night,” breaking down video and coming up with the game plan he hoped would work.

It did, and now the Mocs are champions. Again.

“Now every time we walk in McKenzie Arena and look to the rafters, we’re going to be up there and we can remember that for the rest of our lives,” Porter said. “All the hours and everything we’ve put into it was worth something, and doing it with this team was just extra special.”

The seventh-seeded UTC men will try to make the Mocs 2-for-2 this year in Asheville and repeat as champs when they face top-seeded Furman at 7 p.m. Monday in a game that will be televised by ESPN.

Contact Gene Henley at ghenley@timesfreepress.com.

Updated with more information at 11:20 p.m. on March 5, 2023.