The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga women's basketball team started its first season under head coach Shawn Poppie short on expectations.
The Mocs finished it full of hope.
The clock struck midnight on UTC's postseason run Friday night in a 58-33 loss at No. 1 seed Virginia Tech in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Considering the Hokies (28-4) were 24.5-point favorites entering the game, the margin of victory wasn't a surprise, nor was the result. But allowing that single result to keep anyone from considering the 2022-23 Mocs (20-13) anything but a wild success would be foolish, because it was just last season that UTC won seven total games, resulting in the change of leadership that brought former Virginia Tech assistant Poppie to Chattanooga.
So while there was disappointment, no doubt, with the final result Friday, the team that was seemingly fused by duct tape — there were just seven players (sometimes fewer) in the rotation, and the roster lost three players over the course of the season — acquitted itself nicely with the program's first Southern Conference tournament title since 2017.
"I'll remember the team and the bonds that I built with the teammates and coaches," senior Yazz Wazeerud-Din said after the loss in Blacksburg. "It was a fun ride."
Added fifth-year senior Abbey Cornelius: "From the teams I've had, the coaches I've had, our fans, it's just a big family. I will never forget my time here."
The Mocs will have to move on next season without Wazeerud-Din, who was their top scorer at 15.7 points per game, Cornelius — who was among the top three on the team in points, rebounds assists and blocks — and walk-on Audrey Canter, but those three are the only known losses from the final roster.
Three freshmen guards will soon join the Mocs: Eleecia Carter and Caia Elisaldez, who were both McDonald's All-America nominees, and Hannah Kohn, who set a national record with 19 3-pointers in a single game and well over 500 in her prep career.
The SoCon title, though certainly welcomed by the Mocs, was a surprise to most — and making it worth more than a single NCAA tourney game will require following through. As players who weren't around this season join the program, it will be up to Poppie, his staff and those who remain from 2022-23 to help the new additions catch on at UTC.
"A lot of people would say we overachieved," Poppie said. "Eleven months ago, I would have said it, too, when I first took the job. With that said, we created a lot of momentum. This group has bought into our culture, how we do things, how we operate, and what you saw tonight is really an example of that. They're going to compete and they're going to trust. I think we've laid a foundation and probably skipped some steps, to be honest with you.
"To think that we're here in year one, I think we skipped some steps, and now we've got to continue to build off of it. I told them in the locker room, remember this week. Don't maybe remember this moment in the sense of a loss, but what I mean by that is because this has to push us forward. This spring and workouts, this summer, we've created a culture — this is what we do here. So we've got to use it and springboard us forward, because I do think that we've skipped some steps."
Contact Gene Henley at email@example.com.