With his teammates shooting — and making — shots from the perimeter, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga forward Kevin Easley found room inside and had the best day by a Mocs freshman in almost 40 years.
Easley scored 26 points and grabbed eight rebounds to lead UTC to an 83-65 win over Virginia Military Institute on Sunday in the Southern Conference opener for both teams.
"I was coached to set up a lot of great plays and put the ball in the right spot, and my teammates just found me on those plays," the 6-foot-6 power forward said after the game. "The coaches' game plan pretty much set me up."
Easley's 26 points were the most by a UTC freshman since Randy Henry scored 26 in a 90-75 win over Davidson on Feb. 4, 1980.
UTC (5-5, 1-0) opened up the inside for Easley by having a strong game from the perimeter, shooting 13-of-34 from 3-point range to force the Keydets to stretch their defense and change their defensive game plan.
"This was a hard game in that we knew, based on how they were defending, that you're going to have some 3s," UTC coach Lamont Paris said. "We had 34 3s and that's more than I would have anticipated that we would have taken. But it was a good mix of getting the ball inside and getting it outside."
UTC had four players in double figures. In addition to Easley's 26, David Jean-Baptiste had 18, Jerry Johnson Jr. scored 17 and Jonathan Scott added 11 for the Mocs.
UTC shot 50 percent from the floor in the first half and took a nine-point lead into halftime after Jean-Baptiste went the length of the floor in 3.8 seconds and hit a 3-pointer at the buzzer. In the second half, the Mocs took charge of the game in the first four minutes with a flurry of four straight 3-pointers to stretch their lead to 14. The lead never got below double figures after that, and the Mocs led by as many as 20 late in the game.
Sunday's game was big for Jean-Baptiste, the only returning starter from last season. With freshmen guards Maurice Commander (injury) and Donovann Toatley (suspension) unavailable, the redshirt sophomore got the start. Paris challenged Jean-Baptiste to have a big game running the point and containing VMI guard Bubba Parham, who entered the game leading the SoCon with 21.9 points per game.
"We just talked about showing (Parham) a lot of attention as a team," Paris said. "It's very difficult to guard him with just one guy, so David Jean-Baptiste drew the assignment and I thought he did a really good job."
The Mocs defense held Parham to 13 points on 5-of-15 shooting, and VMI (5-6, 0-1) got 12 points each from Myles Lewis and Garrett Gilkeson and 10 points from Sanju Patel.
In addition to his defensive effort, Jean-Baptiste contributed on both ends of the court, with six rebounds, five assists, a steal and no turnovers in almost 38 minutes.
"I think it started with the plan and my coaches confidence in me to go out there and play the point for the team," Jean-Baptiste said. "For me, it's just about being comfortable and knowing my players and coaches have my back, so I can not be afraid to make mistakes and be comfortable."
Paris had lots of praise for the redshirt sophomore's complete performance in a game where UTC needed contributions from everyone.
"I was proud of Dave for a lot of things," he said. "As an overall stat line, it doesn't get much better than that. I couldn't have been any happier for Dave to have that stat line.
"Before I even saw the score line I knew he was instrumental in getting the ball moved around and had created a couple of times for other guys. I was really happy about that, and of course I knew he had done a good job defensively."
Chattanooga will go back on the road for three game starting Wednesday at Georgia State before visiting Ole Miss and UT-Martin. While the status of Commander and Toatley are uncertain, the Mocs could get a boost from Arizona State transfer Ramon Vila, who could be eligible to play as soon as Wednesday.
But Sunday was about wrapping up a perfect three-game homestand by getting off to a good start in conference play.
"It's good to get off to a good start in the league," Paris said. "Ultimately, in this conference you need to play well in conference and in the conference tournament. The best way you position yourself (for the tournament) is to play well during the regular part of the conference season. So it's nice to get off to a good start and get a home win in front of the fans."
Contact Jim Tanner at JFTanner@gmail.com. Follow him at twitter.com/JFTanner.