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UTC assistant coach Casey Long looks up at the crowd during a game at McKenzie Arena.

Assistant coach Casey Long swished short jump shots before the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga men's basketball practice Wednesday.

"It's where I get my best thinking done," Long said. "I'm thinking about what I'm going to say to them. But I won't say anything until after the first one."

The first one is the most important for the Mocs as they play tonight at 6 in the Southern Conference tournament against UNC Greensboro at the U.S. Cellular Center in Asheville, N.C.

Without one win, the Mocs (13-18, 8-10) cannot earn a second or third or the tournament championship that would launch them into the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2009.

"One win gets you closer to the championship, and if we had won the bye, we would be even closer," junior Zaccheus Mason said. "One win gets you momentum. We have to get it win by win. I know we play Elon if we beat UNCG. After that, I don't know. I haven't looked that far."

The Mocs have lost their first tournament game in the last two years. They lost 76-70 to Georgia Southern last year and 61-52 to Furman in 2010. Junior Sam Watson is the only active UTC player who played in the last SoCon tournament game the Mocs won -- in 2010.

"We're closer as a team this year, so I feel that we're prepared to go to the tournament," Mason said. "We're taking it serious, but we're planning on enjoying the moment."

Coach John Shulman opened Wednesday's practice with a quick story about the 2009 NCAA tournament as he tried to explain the significance of the SoCon event. He recalled stopping short at the doors of the Wachovia Center: He didn't want to walk out, because it signaled the end of the season.

"I've been to the promised land and I know how good the promised land is, and that's why you go to the tournament," Shulman said. "Once you know the taste of the NCAA tournament, you're dying to get back, because there's no assurances you'll get back.

"That's why your heart starts racing and you get on edge."

Shulman and his staff have spent the week preparing for the Spartans (8-21, 6-12), who beat UTC 77-69 in Greensboro and 94-68 in McKenzie Arena. Trevis Simpson scored 41 points in the first game and Nicholas Paulos scored 30 on 10-of-12 3-point shooting in the rematch.

"Those were two of our better individual performances this season," UNCG assistant coach Mike Roberts said on the weekly teleconference. "I'm sure Chattanooga will make adjustments and not make it easy. You can't count on a guy having 41 or a guy going 10-of-12 on 3s.

"They're going to be a tough team to beat, and it's hard to beat a team three times in one year."

The Mocs want to beat UNCG just once.

"If you get that one, you're feeling good about yourself because anything can happen," sophomore Ronrico White said. "It has to start with that one win."