K.C. Hankton expected the nerves.
Making his University of Tennessee at Chattanooga debut not long after the NCAA announced Wednesday that all Division I transfers had been granted immediate eligibility, the 6-foot-7, 217-pound junior who began his college basketball career at Saint Louis entered at the 13:26 mark of the first half of Wednesday's home game against UNC Asheville.
However, it wasn't until his second stint of the first half — he returned to the court with 6:51 remaining — that Hankton got in a flow. So he took a shot, a 3-point attempt from the corner. Good.
"When you see that (first shot) go in, you're just ready to hoop," Hankton said.
So next it was a 3 from the left wing. Good. Then it was a 3 from the right wing. Same result.
Hankton ended up with a team-high 16 points in his UTC debut, and the Mocs rallied in each half, taking the lead for good on an A.J. Caldwell steal and layup with 5.4 seconds remaining in a 69-66 win at McKenzie Arena.
UTC (7-0) extended the best start in the program's Division I era and will try to keep that going at 3 p.m. Eastern on Saturday at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
In his last seven games as a Billiken, Hankton played a total of 19 minutes. In 12 games last season, he had eight rebounds. On Wednesday, he played 21 minutes and had eight rebounds. The first 3 he hit was the first he'd made since March 2, 2019, against George Mason, as he had missed his previous eight attempts outside the arc — including all six last season.
"I thought he was outstanding for a guy who hadn't been in a game, and really has had limited minutes in his career in games," UTC coach Lamont Paris said. "I was really happy for him to go out there and see the ball go through the net.
"These guys, they judge themselves by how often a ball goes through the net. So I was glad that happened for him."
Smith finished with 15 points, nine rebounds and five assists. Junior guard Trey Doomes had a career-high 14 points and was a team-best plus-13 in 27 minutes of game time. Jamaal Walker added 10 points for the Mocs, while Caldwell had eight points and five assists.
LJ Thorpe scored 14 points as one of four players in double figures for the Bulldogs (3-3).
It wasn't just that Doomes was scoring; it was all the little hustle plays the 6-foot-3, 171-pounder made to affect the game. Six rebounds, two assists, a steal, solid defense. Against an athletic, uptempo opponent, the Mocs needed someone who could match that intensity and effort, and it was a matchup perfectly suited for Doomes.
The Mocs won Wednesday despite leading for only 11:02 of game time. The Bulldogs led for more than 27 minutes.
That wasn't until the game-ending 6-0 run by the Mocs. First it was a pair of Doomes free throws, followed by the pressure (without fouling) that led to the Caldwell steal and layup. Next was a Hankton deflection, which led to Smith being fouled and knocking down the clinching free throws.
"I felt we kept our composure the whole time, even though they were coming out with a lot of energy and throwing a lot of things at us that we'd never seen before." — Doomes on how the Mocs withstood UNC Asheville
Wednesday highlighted a glaring weakness for the Mocs: A lack of ball handlers, which is a situation opponents will attempt to exploit as the season goes on. But it also highlighted a strength of the Mocs, which is a toughness and a resolve to win. They probably had no business winning a game they largely spent trailing on the scoreboard, but finding a way to do so was important — and the Mocs did just that.