The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga's men's basketball win-loss record took a step back Tuesday night, but the team clearly took a step forward.
The final result was a 77-75 loss to defending Ohio Valley Conference champion and 2017 NCAA tournament qualifier Jacksonville State in the final of the Cayman Islands Classic Mainland Event, but the UTC players gave the impression that they are settling into their roles and playing with a beneficial looseness.
With a roster comprised of three juniors and a pair of sophomores — none of whom played major roles a year ago — and eight freshmen, getting players to buy into new coach Lamont Paris's system was not expected to be difficult. For the most part, the team was like a new piece of clay that could be molded into the style of play Paris wants.
But the molding surely would take a while, and the Mocs now are 2-3. Yet while they're far from the finished product, the players seemed Tuesday to understand what they're doing.facebook
"I'm very supportive of our guys and I really care about them," Paris said postgame. "I want to help them with some things, but they know they won't get any sympathy from me in situations like this. There were moments where these guys have never been in or seen before. They've never been in a situation where they had to make a play or make a pass, defend the best player. That just doesn't happen automatically.
"Our level of expectations for a team isn't dependent on the final score, but it's high in the way we execute, battle and compete, which ultimately leads to success."
The Mocs — who just eight days prior lost 89-47 at Alabama-Birmingham — had a real chance to win Tuesday's game, building six-point leads on the Gamecocks on two occasions, the final after a Rodney Chatman 3-pointer from the wing made it 59-53 with 8:46 to play. Three turnovers in key moments down the stretch didn't help, nor did the hot shooting of JSU's Malcolm Drumwright, who scored all but two of his 27 points in the second half and overtime.
In certain moments Tuesday, the youngest team in NCAA Division I basketball looked like it was priming for a breakthrough against the No. 2 team in the OVC. At other times, the Mocs looked just like the youngest team in Division I basketball.
"It's no secret, we're young," said junior Makinde London, who had a career-high 23 points. "Teams know that; it's no secret. We have a lot of guys in new positions, but we just play basketball. Maturity, we've been harping on it. We're trying to grow and step up in these opportunities. We'll go back to the drawing board, watch film, learn what we did wrong and try to correct that. We let this one slip away, but we played hard.
"But we can't settle for this at the end of the day."
Contact Gene Henley at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @genehenleytfp.