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Staff photo by Robin Rudd / UTC men's basketball coach Lamont Paris confers with sophomore guard Maurice Commander during a SoCon game against Furman on Jan. 8 at McKenzie Arena. In Saturday's 84-77 win at Wofford, Commander scored 22 points, his most as a Moc.

Talk basketball with Lamont Paris, and it's clear the things that excite him about the sport are the most simple.

At the root of all of them, from setting a well-timed screen to deflecting a pass, are two very basic elements: effort and energy. Or, as the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga men's basketball coach prefers to call it, juice.

The noticeable boost of juice in the Mocs, especially over the past week, has given Paris reason to believe his third season on the bench could be special. At 12-6, the Mocs already have exceeded the number of wins of his first UTC team and have matched last season's total, but it's more than that.

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UTC men's basketball coach Lamont Paris talks to the Mocs during a timeout in Wednesday night's home game against Wofford. Paris takes pride in his teams playing with effort and energy, something he said the Mocs have done in back-to-back SoCon victories. / Staff photo by Robin Rudd

After losing a halftime lead in a Jan. 8 home loss to Furman, the Mocs had their best stretch of practice yet this season. Such a loss would have lingered a year ago, but this season's squad rebounded three days later to rout Samford 105-67 last Saturday, then posted a decisive 72-59 win over 2019 Southern Conference champion Wofford on Wednesday to improve to 3-2 in conference play.

The key for UTC in its back-to-back victories at McKenzie Arena? A heaping helping of juice.

"Both our practices this week were great," Paris said after Wednesday's win. "Our practice yesterday was short because I had to leave due to another commitment, but I was glad it was short because the juice was on.

"I left there with a little pep in my own step because it was inspiring to me. They are playing really hard and they are playing for each other. They are extremely coachable, and it's a fun group to be around and I enjoy coaching them every day."

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UTC forward Ramon Vila, right, defends against Samford forward Logan Dye during last Saturday's SoCon basketball matchup at McKenzie Arena. UTC won 105-67 three days after a home loss to Furman, and coach Lamont Paris credited the Mocs' defense for their offensive success. / Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter

The statistics have improved across the board from last season but most notably on defense, where effort and discipline are the keys. The 2018-19 Mocs allowed an average of 74 points per game. This season, while playing at a quicker pace, the Mocs have given up just less than 66 points per game. A year after being outrebounded by two per game, they have averaged 2.3 more than opponents.

Paris believes those are the kind of numbers that can help win games when the offensive stats aren't pretty.

It's deadly when both ends are clicking. Just ask Samford.

"People think I was crazy when I said we scored 105 because of what we did on the defensive end, but that's what happened. But tonight was another example," Paris said after the win against Wofford.

"We scored 43 in the first half. Teams typically score about 70 points per game, so if you're leading 43-35 or something like that, you feel really good about it. If you can get in there and defend and hold a team like that to 20 points in one half? Now 43 seems like a world of points."

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UTC's Stefan Kenic (33) works to protect the lane as Wofford's Chevez Goodwin moves toward the basket during Wednesday night's game at McKenzie Arena. UTC won 72-59 for its second straight SoCon victory. / Staff photo by Robin Rudd

Maybe the most obvious defensive improvement has come in the backcourt, where junior David Jean-Baptiste and sophomore Maurice Commander — "They can be those guys that no one wants them guarding you," Paris said — have led a guard corps that has helped hold opponents to 31% shooting from 3-point range.

Jean-Baptiste said the numbers aren't by accident.

"We are right where we want to be, headed in the right direction, on the defensive end specifically," he said. "It doesn't just happen. Coach harps on it every day in practice. How can we push ourselves into being the best defensive team we can be?"

The Mocs will need that momentum — and juice — to travel with them for Saturday's 7 p.m. game at UNC Greensboro (14-5, 4-2), one of the SoCon's most athletic teams.

"We're really excited about that," Paris said. "It's a great opportunity against another team with championship aspects. They are longer, more athletic and will attack the rim, so it will present us with different challenges."

Contact Lindsey Young at lyoung@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6296. Follow him on Twitter @youngsports22.

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