BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga's bid for a decent seeding in the Southern Conference men's basketball tournament took a double hit Saturday at Samford University's Pete Hanna Center.
The Mocs lost in overtime, 80-76, the loss tying them with Samford for fifth place with four league games remaining. They also may have lost Kevin Easley, the team's leading scorer this season, who injured an ankle late in the second half and did not return. His status for Thursday's game at The Citadel will be updated this week.
Jerry Johnson led the Mocs (11-16, 6-8) with 26 points, which matched his collegiate high. Before he exited with 4:29 left, Easley scored 15 and had a team-high nine rebounds, tying Keith Parker's UTC record for points in a freshman season with his final basket.
"We gave this game away," Johnson said. "We could have prevented a lot of these things. We can't take games for granted. We will probably go over those last few minutes of game play and overtime a long time."
UTC led 68-64 with 43 seconds to play in regulation before Josh Sharkey, who led the Bulldogs (16-11, 6-8) with 27 points, drove for two. The Mocs then missed the front ends of two one-and-one free-throw opportunities, leading to a Sharkey free throw with eight seconds to play.
His second fell off the rim, the ball going out of bounds to the Mocs. But Starkey stole the inbounds pass and got the ball to Myron Gordon, who was fouled with one second to play. He hit the first free throw, but his second bounced in and out, sending the game into overtime.
"When you get to that point, it's just winning plays," frustrated UTC coach Lamont Paris said. "Winning plays are free throws. Winning plays are inbounding the ball safely, coming out to meet the ball, screening and coming back to it and being open.
"There were a multitude of winning plays, and we did not make them."
Sharkey and Gordon hit baskets to start the extra session, and the Mocs never got even. Johnson hit a pair of 3-pointers — his seventh and eighth of the game, tying for third-most in a single game in program history. His second made it a two-point game with 37 seconds left, but the Bulldogs ran the clock down before Robert Allen missed a shot in the lane.
The ball rolled to the right of the basket, where it went out of bounds with two seconds to play, with possession staying with the Bulldogs after a video review. Sharkey made two subsequent free throws to seal the damaging win.
"It's unfortunate that we did not win this game with some pretty simple plays," Paris said. "There are a million plays that happen during a game, but at the end of the day it came down to those scenarios. That's why they are called clutch moments. Those missed one-and-ones were damaging, and it's not a problem we've been having."
The Mocs led throughout the first half as Johnson caught fire early with four 3s in the game's first 10 minutes. Leading 40-38 at halftime, UTC came out hot after intermission, with David Jean-Baptiste scoring five early points and Ramon Vila adding four.
Sharkey started penetrating at will, though, his consecutive drives tying the game at 60 with six minutes left. A minute later, after Thomas Smallwood put the Mocs up with a 3-pointer, Easley went down after rolling his ankle.
UTC scored only five more points in regulation.
"Losing him changes everything you do," Paris said of Easley's exit. "From an offensive standpoint, the matchups are completely different, the ability to rebound is different and the ability to throw the ball inside and get something out of it was compromised. More importantly, I hope it's not anything that holds him out too long."
Smallwood added 12 points and Jean-Baptiste 11 for the Mocs, while Ruben Guerrero followed Sharkey with 19 for the Bulldogs.
"This is definitely a tough loss," Jean-Baptiste said with a shake of his head. "We basically had the game set at the end. We did the right amount of things to win it, but we have to learn from what we did wrong."