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Casey Long, left, named interim head UTC men's basketball coach, sits with players before a news conference to announce former head coach John Shulman's release Wednesday at McKenzie Arena in Chattanooga. Shulman was released following four Mocs seasons without a winning record and declines in ticket sales.

Zaccheus Mason thought he and his University of Tennessee at Chattanooga basketball teammates were gathering Wednesday for a typical postseason meeting.

Then interim athletic director Laura Herron delivered news that crushed them more than losing any game: John Shulman would no longer be their coach.

"None of us knew it was even coming," Mason said. "It's tough to handle something like that. We're trying to deal with it amongst each other. There's a friendship we all have, and the amazing thing in this situation is how close we are and how anybody can go to anyone and talk about anything. There's a lot of heartache."

Mason and his teammates, including Gee McGhee and Ronrico White, did not want to speak publicly Wednesday. And 24 hours later those three, who started every game last season, were still emotional about the coaching situation.

"Everybody was just silent," White said. "It's tough to lose Coach Shulman. We'd just lost the guy that brought everybody in that room together."

The pain will last beyond the weekend -- perhaps eased by a scheduled tournament-watching party at the Shulman residence for Thursday night -- as players cope at their own pace.

For now, they're hurt and devastated. They said they had no notion that their coach would be dismissed.

"We're still shocked," said White, a rising junior. "I was really devastated. As soon as I heard it, my head went down because Coach Shulman recruited me, he sold me on this city and this program. Our emotions will always be tied in with Coach Shulman."

The three leading scorers from this past season are among the 10 players who could return to play for a new coach.

Mason, who transferred to UTC after playing football at Ole Miss, has few options. But other players could transfer to another Division I school and sit out a year, then be eligible to play in the 2014-15 season.

Those decisions will have to wait.

"I told guys not to make any decisions, because your emotions are high," White said. "It's easier said than done, but do what you have to to get through this tough time."

McGhee, who professed his affection for Shulman on Twitter earlier this season by posting a picture of Shulman holding the Southern Conference tournament trophy, and the other underclassmen will be the players with the biggest decisions to make. But first an athletic director and then a coach must be hired.

"It's not been discussed, but it's been thought about because I don't know who the coach will be, what his plans will be and who he'll bring with him," McGhee said. "It's thought about. But I'll wait until the new coach gets here and see what happens. I'm being patient about the whole situation and trying to keep an open mind."

The first priority now for the players is continuing their academic success and garnering APR points for the team. The next order of business is individual improvement followed by team improvement.

"We have to keep everybody together, put our focus on bettering ourselves to help us as a team, because we're a unit," Mason said. "We still have a season ahead of us, regardless of who's the coach."