UTC men top Tennessee Tech, defend their way to 4-0 start

Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / UTC's Myles Che (77) defends as Tennessee Tech's Josiah Davis prepares to pass during Sunday's game at McKenzie Arena.

Historically, basketball teams coached by Dan Earl have won with an offensive philosophy of 3-point shooting, better known as "See, Share, Shoot."

That's still the philosophy, but it's not as if his current University of Tennessee at Chattanooga team is shooting it very well.

Now in their second season under Earl's direction, the Mocs entered this weekend having made only 31% of their attempts from long range through the first three games. They're winning, but it's largely due to what they're doing on other side of the court.

With defense again a factor in their favor, the Mocs grinded out yet another victory Sunday afternoon, overcoming a slow start to defeat Tennessee Tech 68-63 at McKenzie Arena and improve to 4-0.

"In the past couple of years, and certainly last year, we were pretty efficient offensively," said Earl, who took over at UTC after seven seasons leading Virginia Military Institute. "We've talked about that, and not that we can't get better there as well, but we thought we could really make strides as a basketball program defensively, and I think we've gotten much better there."

It has helped to have an anchor in sophomore Sam Alexis, who continued his hot start to the season with a 22-point, 15-rebound, three-block performance against the Golden Eagles (1-4). Fellow big man Jan Zidek added 18 points and shot 4-of-8 from 3-point range, while sophomore Honor Huff finished with 16 points and was a plus-18, with UTC 18 points better than the visitors in his 35 minutes of action.

The Mocs trailed by 11 points early and never led by more than five, with the difference simply being making some tough plays down the stretch of a second half with six ties and five lead changes. Huff and Alexis had 24 of the Mocs' 39 points in the final 20 minutes.


Offensively, the Mocs were 8-for-30 from 3-point range and were outscored 32-20 in paint by an opponent that liked to drive to the basket, but UTC got to the line 24 times and made 18 of those free throws, including a 12-for-14 showing in the second half. Tennessee Tech was 6-for-11 at the foul line.

"Coach tells us all the time that we have a chance to be really, really good," said Huff, who, after following Earl from VMI, had to sit out last season due to SoCon rules regarding transfers within the league, making him a spectator as the Mocs went 18-17 and reached the conference tournament title game before falling short of repeating as champions.

"We're a new team with new faces," Huff added, "so we're still trying to jell a little bit, and we've never played in the scenario like this in a real game setting. So getting these games under our belt is going to help us and propel us for the next couple of games. We're all problems, so when we get those problems on the same page, it's going to be very scary."

Tennessee Tech's Rodney Johnson Jr. just missed a double-double with 18 points and nine rebounds, and he was joined in double-digit scoring by teammates Josiah Davis (14) and David Early (13). The Golden Eagles' starting lineup included David Craig, the 7-foot-2 former McCallie standout from South Africa who transferred to the Cookeville program this year after playing his freshman season at Mercer.

Next up for the Mocs is a multiteam event, better known as an MTE, this weekend at McKenzie. They'll face Evansville (4-0) on Friday and Southeast Missouri State on Sunday, with those two teams playing each other on Saturday and tipoff set for 2 p.m. each day at McKenzie.

Southeast Missouri State won the Ohio Valley Conference tournament last season — and made its first NCAA tourney appearance in 23 years as a First Four team — but the Redhawks are 0-3 going into a home game against Central Arkanas on Monday night. That includes a 76-57 loss this past Wednesday to Evansville, a Missouri Valley Conference program.

Contact Gene Henley at ghenley@timesfreepress.com.