Ramon Vila was nearly perfect from the field Wednesday night in leading the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga to a 86-67 Southern Conference basketball win over VMI at McKenzie Arena.
The junior from Barcelona had 23 points on 9-of-10 shooting as the Mocs went to him early and often inside with efficient results. Matt Ryan added 17 points on 7-of-12 shooting, with David Jean-Baptiste adding 11 and a team-high seven rebounds and four assists.
UTC improved to 16-10 for the season and 7-6 in the SoCon, moving within a game of fourth place with five games remaining.
The Mocs closed the first half on a 9-0 run to take a 39-26 lead, but the Keydets quickly cut the lead to six on a Travis Evee 3-pointer as part of a 7-0 run that included a pair of UTC turnovers. UTC coach Lamont Paris elected to let his team play out of it, and the Mocs did with a Vila dunk off a Ryan steal igniting a 9-2 run in just over two minutes.
"I thought about it," Paris said of calling a timeout after the VMI early run. "My aspiration is to develop a team where they do things on their own and dig themselves out of holes. The only way to do it is to do it. We strung a couple of stops together, which will often get you going. We settled down on the defensive end, which was the difference."
From there the Mocs quickly pulled away to hand the Keydets their largest margin of defeat of the season.
Vila had one of those games players dream of. UTC's "Spanish Acquisition" had his way inside against the Keydets, scoring the 23 points and adding five rebounds and a team-best two steals. During the game's key run (see below), Vila had a pair of baskets, three rebounds and a steal, which turned into a Ryan layup for a 13-point lead.
23. The Mocs were a season-best 23-of-24 from the free-throw line Wednesday, a stat that kept the game comfortable for most of the second half against a VMI team that can get hot from the outside. UTC came in hitting 69.7% from the charity stripe. Stefan Kenic led the showing with an 8-for-8 performance, with Vila making five of six and Jonathan Scott four of four. It is the fourth-best percentage in the program's history in Division I.
VMI has had a knack for staying in games all season, and Wednesday the Keydets turned a 39-26 halftime deficit into a six-point game in the first five minutes of the second half. The Mocs answered by going inside to Vila, who dunked off a Ryan steal to ignite a 9-2 run that pushed the lead back into double digits.
WHAT IT MEANS
That the Mocs can win a game without drama is encouraging, especially since there is another game with the Keydets and one vs. The Citadel they should win. With renewed hopes of finishing in the top half of the SoCon in time for next month's league tournament, UTC needs as many of these "taking care of business" games as it can get. A monster game at Furman looms Saturday, where the pressure will be heavy on the Paladins.
Paris on Vila's big game: "Part of it was we had schemed specifically to get the ball in there. We felt we could have an advantage if we could get him one on one, which we did. I thought that was where our advantage was in this game, and guys did a good job of finding him. I told the guys what a luxury it is to have a guy like Ramon around the basket. He attracts so much attention that he's going to get you good looks."
Vila on the team's play and effort following last week's loss to Western Carolina: "The Western game and ETSU, it wasn't that we had a bad attitude. We talked face to face after the Western game, just straight truth. Hustling, diving to the floor — we weren't doing that. Now, 50-50 balls are mostly ours now. That's a big part of the team when another team sees you going to the floor."
Ryan on winning two straight after falling to 5-6 on SoCon play: "We talked about getting on a win streak. We knew Wofford was a must-win, so it's time to get on a win streak. This week won't be easy against a team tied for first in Furman."
Contact Lindsey Young at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 423-757-6296; follow on Twitter @youngsports22.