Western Carolina took advantage of a rare poor home shooting performance by the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga men to win 64-61 Saturday at McKenzie Arena, a result that could prove damaging to the Mocs' hopes of a favorable seed at next month's Southern Conference tournament.
UTC (14-9, 5-5), which had shot better than 50% in three of its previous four home conference games, was just 22-of-65 (33.8%) from the field as the Catamounts (14-7, 6-4) completed a regular-season series sweep. Western, which came in as the SoCon's most prolific scoring team with an average of 80 points per game, shot only 41.4% (and was just 4-of-23 from 3-point range), but several hustle plays late turned a UTC lead into a loss.
"Too many missed shots," coach Lamont Paris said with a shake of his head. "Can't shoot 33% and win a game. Having said that, we had opportunities to win the game, and that's what frustrates me."
David Jean-Baptiste led UTC with 17 points, with Matt Ryan and Ramon Vila adding 12 each.
The Mocs trailed by eight with 14:20 to play after a putback basket by the Catamounts' Carlos Dotson, who finished with 15 points and 14 rebounds. UTC went on an 11-2 run to take a 43-42 lead on Vila's putback with just less than nine minutes to play.
The advantage grew to four on a Trey Doomes layup with 6:41 left, but the Catamounts kept the pressure on and took the lead back for good when Dotson followed two offensive rebounds for Western by completing a hard drive in the lane for a 58-57 lead. Mason Faulkner, who led the visitors with 18 points, hit four free throws in the final 25 seconds to keep the Mocs at bay.
Western Carolina big man Dotson has been a thorn in the Mocs' side for two years, and Saturday he was the focal point of the offense, coming through with 15 points on 7-of-13 shooting. More importantly, though, were his 14 rebounds and the several times he got his hands on a miss by the Catamounts to keep UTC players from getting clean rebounds. His one-hander in the lane with 38 seconds to play gave his team the lead for good.
33.8%. That's what the Mocs shot Saturday, going 22-for-65 from the field, including a dismal 7-of-27 showing from the 3-point line. Both marks were their lowest of the season at home, where they had been shooting lights out for the past month. Consider this: The Mocs put up seven more shots than the Catamounts and had three more offensive rebounds, four fewer turnovers and six more steals — and still lost. Few of the missed shots would be called poor decisions. They just weren't falling.
The game turned on one possession in the final two minutes. Jean-Baptiste's drive gave UTC a 57-54 lead, putting the Catamounts in a must-score scenario. The Mocs played great defense on the ensuing possession, but the Catamounts got two offensive rebounds — both on loose-ball situations — and ultimately cut the lead to one as Faulkner scored on a drive. The Mocs missed quick jump shots on their next two possessions, each resulting in Western points and a three-point lead for the visitors with 21 seconds to play.
WHAT IT MEANS
As UTC senior Ryan said, this one hurts. A lot. A win would have given the Mocs six SoCon victories and put them inside the league standings' topsy-turvy top half. As it is, they are now in the bottom four, two games out of a top-four tournament seed, which is where they would ultimately like to finish. With a tough game waiting Wednesday at home against East Tennessee State, this loss can't linger or the Mocs will pay the price.
Paris on the frustrating finish: "I talked to our guys about a statistic we had while I was (an assistant) at Wisconsin concerning a stretch of 166 games where, at the five-minute mark, where we were tied or leading. Our record in those situations was 160-6. How does that happen? You're smart, and you defend and you track down those rebounds. I thought they out-scrapped us twice. That's not what I want to be known for as a team."
Paris on regrouping: "A lot has to do with the character of your guys and how we all respond to it. How are you going to respond to that? Are you going to do this again? We need to respond in a way that prevents a situation like this happening again."
Ryan on being swept by Western: "I'm sick to my stomach right now. It's not a game we should lose. There's nothing positive that can come out of it. We're just a better team, but they beat us twice this year."
The Mocs are 66-29 all-time against Western and 38-6 at home. However, they have won just one of the past six meetings with the Catamounts. Western won the battle on the boards 44-39, pushing UTC's record to 2-7 this season when losing the rebounding matchup. It is the second-most rebounds allowed by UTC this season (47 at Troy on Nov. 12 are the most), and only the second time in the past 12 games the Mocs losing the rebounding battle. UTC had 12 assists on its 22 baskets, its fourth straight game with 10-plus assists. Western had only seven, dropping the Mocs' record to 12-3 this season when having more assists than their opponents.