As college basketball has become more and more of a perimeter-oriented game, the value of the good old-fashioned two-point field goal has diminished.
With Saturday's 69-65 win over East Tennessee State University, coach Katie Burrows and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga women offered proof that type of shot still matters. The Mocs overcame a major disparity in 3-point success — UTC was 2-for-18; the Buccaneers were 9-for-14 — by going 19-of-28 from inside the arc and making 25 of 33 free throws at McKenzie Arena.
The win gave the Mocs a share of the Southern Conference regular-season championship with Samford and UNC Greensboro. It is the 22nd such title for UTC (11-17, 10-4) and the ninth it has shared.
Burrows' team is the No. 2 seed for the SoCon tournament and will play No. 7 seed Mercer (7-22, 4-10) at 3:30 p.m. Thursday at Harrah's Cherokee Center in Asheville, North Carolina. By earning the No. 2 seed, the Mocs are guaranteed at least a spot in the Women's National Invitation Tournament.
"If the 3s aren't falling, you have to make the adjustment. I can't remember one quite like this one, but (ETSU) shot the ball well from 3," said Burrows, a former UTC player and assistant whose second season leading the program started 1-13 but could end up with the Mocs celebrating another league title if they win three straight games in Asheville.
UTC junior Bria Dial continued her hot shooting to lead her team with 19 points, with Abbey Cornelius chipping in 16 with nine rebounds and three blocks, both game highs. Adding 12 points apiece were Lakelyn Bouldin and Eboni Williams.
Bouldin, a senior from Van Buren County, played her final home game as a Moc, as did fellow guard NaKeia Burks.
Micah Scheetz and E'Lease Stafford led ETSU (9-20, 4-10) with 21 points each and combined for six 3-pointers.
UTC trailed by seven in the second half, but Bouldin and Dial combined for 16 points in the third quarter, including Bouldin's four-point play to close the period, to give the Mocs a 48-46 lead. The game was tied at 63 after a Scheetz drive with 1:17 to play when Burks made two free throws. Stafford missed on the other end, leading to Bouldin being fouled and making it a four-point game with two more free throws with 16 seconds left.
"We were missing free throws early in the third quarter, and I remember telling the girls that if we were going to win this one we had to make those," Burrows said. "In the end we did, and we got some defensive stops when we needed them."
Although each of the Mocs' starters took a turn in standing out in this one, sophomore post Cornelius did so in several different areas and at key moments down the stretch. In addition to her points, rebounds and blocks, she matched several others for the game high in assists with three. Her 8-for-8 performance at the foul line, with six of those free throws in the fourth, was huge.
5. Of all the wacky stats Saturday, this one may have best told the tale. The Bucs are an active inside team, but the Mocs allowed them only five offensive rebounds and five second-chance points.
Bouldin saved one of her best quarters for Saturday, and it turned the game around. Scoreless in the first half, she got in the book by making a short jumper in the lane, was fouled and hit the free throw to get the Mocs within 44-42. She scored six more points in the third quarter, including the game's key basket — her four-point play for a two-point lead entering the fourth.
WHAT IT MEANS
The most successful women's basketball program in SoCon history added more hardware to close out a remarkable second half of the season. The Mocs will head to Asheville with nice momentum, even though they aren't seeded No. 1. It's a team that believes it can win now instead of just hoping to.
Burrows on the season's turnaround: "I'm just so incredibly proud of this bunch. It was looking grim early on, as everybody knows, but they just kept pressing forward. I knew there was more inside them and they knew it. They kept coming into practice with energy, so I knew it would come out at some point."
Burrows on seniors Burks and Bouldin: "What a special group of girls. For Nakeia to come back for her fifth year, I'm so glad she is able to go out on this note instead of last year. And to be able to see her enjoy it with her teammates is special. The same thing for Lakelyn. For everything she's been through and everything she's had to take on the last two years ... I'm going to miss those two."
Cornelius on the Mocs winning in spite of their 3-point struggles: "We definitely did better not settling for 3s. I've never seen a game like this. We were fortunate to come out on top in this one considering that."