Five games into the fourth season with Lamont Paris as coach, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga men's basketball team has shown the beauty of its offense this year is the Mocs' ability to find different ways to be effective and put the ball in the hoop.
Wednesday evening, the Bellarmine Knights — playing their first home game as an NCAA Division I team — took away the Mocs' penetration and dared the visitors to make shots from the perimeter.
As it turns out, UTC was more than capable, tying a school record with 17 made 3-pointers in a 77-68 victory at Freedom Hall in Louisville, Kentucky, to improve to 5-0 for the first time since the 1987-88 season. After consecutive road contests at Bellarmine and Middle Tennessee State, the Mocs are back at McKenzie Arena for their next game, hosting NAIA member North Georgia at 2 p.m. Saturday.
Four players did a bulk of the scoring for the Mocs on Wednesday night. Malachi Smith led the way with 18 points, chipping in 11 rebounds and six assists. A.J. Caldwell and Jamaal Walker each finished with 15 points — all scored from behind the arc — with Caldwell totaling eight rebounds and Walker three assists. David Jean-Baptiste had 14 points and five assists in 32 minutes before fouling out.
For Bellarmine (1-2), which opened its D-I era with a 76-54 loss at Duke last week, Pedro Bradshaw scored 22 points with six rebounds and Dylan Penn added 19 points with six assists.
Redshirt sophomore Smith, as he has been multiple times this season, was the catalyst from the guard position, and even more so in the final 1:27 after Jean-Baptiste fouled out. While his rebounding gets so much attention — and deservedly so as he has averaged 11.2 per game as a 6-foot-4, 205-pound lead guard — he's just as good as a playmaker, this time reaching a new high for assists in his UTC career.
The 3-point stat was huge, but the Mocs' defense forced eight turnovers in the second half after Bellarmine committed only two in the first half. Those turnovers were converted into 11 second-half points in a game the Mocs won by nine.
Although the Mocs led for most of the game, it wasn't until a 25-second stretch in the second half that they were able to pull away from the pesky Knights. With his team leading 60-57, Walker nailed a 3-pointer from the corner with 6:21 to play. That was followed by a steal by Jean-Baptiste, and on the ensuing UTC possession, he found Caldwell for a 3 that made it 66-57. The Knights never got closer than six the rest of the way.
"One of the things we talked about before the game was taking whatever they gave us and not having your mind made up on what you're going to do. We had an idea that allowing us 3s was something that they were going to be committed to, and we shot the ball well. We moved the ball well. I thought our quality of 3 was good. The ones we made were almost exclusively high quality, and we've got guys that can make shots." — Paris on the perimeter game
"These young guys having great confidence will be very beneficial. If they have confidence, it brings the team more confidence, so they just have to keep playing hard and have confidence in themselves." — Jean-Baptiste on the play of the Mocs' underclassmen
"My goal is to win. It's a team effort, so that's just the culmination of the team driving and giving me open shots. I can't thank them enough." — Walker after making five 3-pointers
The most impressive part about the Mocs' start is that they're undefeated despite a lack of depth. Only nine players are dressing out for games right now, with sophomore forward Prosper Obidiebube not fully back yet from an injury sustained in the opener and junior forward Mark Tikhonenko out for personal reasons. The NCAA is reportedly set to vote next week on a rule that would allow all transfers to be immediately eligible, and that would benefit UTC greatly, with guard/forward Darius Banks — a 1,000-point scorer at James Madison University — and forward K.C. Hankton currently sitting out. Not only would they add two bodies, but at least one of them is a proven commodity in college who could only help make a good team even better.