The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga took a step forward in the long march to March.

The Mocs beat Appalachian State 81-69 on Thursday in the Southern Conference opener for both teams.

"This game counts in March and we talked about that," Shulman said. "I didn't want to put it into a must-win, because that doesn't happen until March, but that was pretty close."

The Mocs were coming off three straight lethargic losses. On Thursday, they played like a different team, the one Shulman and his squad expected to see from the outset.

"We had talked about how we were really struggling coming off a bad loss at FIU and the preseason best team in the SoCon coming in," Shulman said. "I saw great effort and enthusiasm and saw a really good team win."

Junior guard Omar Wattad led UTC with 21 points. Chris Early and Ricky Taylor each had 13 points and DeAntre Jefferson added 11 off the bench.

But in the eyes of ASU coach Jason Capel, Mocs point guard Keegan Bell and his career-high 13 assists, dictated the flow of the game.

"I thought it was Steve Nash out there," said Capel, a former North Carolina forward. "He controlled them and really controlled the entire game. We allowed him to come off screens and pick us apart."

ASU star guard Donald Sims, the nation's third-leading scorer, had 28 points. Omar Carter added 14 and Andre Williamson had 10 points. The rest of the Mountaineers -- who played for the SoCon championship last March -- combined for 17 points.

"We're a team that people look to as one of the teams that's going to do things in the league, and if people are going to give you respect, you'd better be prepared for it," Capel said. "They beat our tails into a pulp in the second half. That wasn't the team we've had for the first four games."

Neither the Mocs (3-5, 1-0 SoCon) or Mountaineers were able to wrestle control of the game in the first half. It was tied four times and had eight lead-changes in the first half.

Sims had 12 points including two layups in the final minute that gave the Mountaineers a 36-32 lead at halftime.

"[Shulman] got into us at halftime and challenged everybody on the team to play with all your heart," Taylor said. "Because of that, we had success."

Early gave the Mocs their first second-half lead when he swished a 3-pointer from the right win for a 46-45 advantage. The shot came during UTC's best offensive streak of the season.

The Mocs scored at least a free throw on 11 straight possessions and built a 62-50 lead with 11 minutes to play.

"Finally, we found a rhythm, everybody was hitting and we were happy for each other," Wattad said. "It was fun. It was one of the best feelings."

ASU (2-3, 0-1) pulled within four points on two occasions, with about eight minutes to play but it never came within one possession of UTC.