The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga women's basketball team keeps putting distance between itself and a rough start to this season.
Several players made solid contributions Saturday as the Mocs rallied to defeat Furman 60-52 at McKenzie Arena and improve to 3-1 in the Southern Conference. UTC is 4-14 overall, with its hot start in league play following an 11-game losing streak.
"The effort and intensity to get to this point have been incredible," UTC coach Katie Burrows said. "We got in such a deep hole in nonconference play, and it was so hard to dig out of it, but once we got into conference play we saw a way to get out of it."
NaKeia Burks scored 17 points and Lakelyn Bouldin added 14 for the Mocs, and Eboni Williams overcame a poor shooting performance by getting seven rebounds, seven assists and five steals, all team highs. Freshman point guard Dena Jarrells scored eight points, including a key 3-pointer at the end of each half.
Furman (12-6, 3-1) led by 12 points during the second quarter, but the Mocs trailed just 36-32 at halftime. The score was tied twice in the third, and UTC took its first lead with less than two minutes to play in the quarter as four consecutive points from Ruona Uwusiaba made it 43-41.
The lead changed hands six times in the final 12 minutes, the first coming when Furman's Taylor Petty — she scored a game-high 21 points — had four points in a 6-0 run that gave the Paladins a 50-45 lead with 7:32 to play.
UTC forced four Furman turnovers in a two-minute span to regain the lead, with Burks converting a layup to make it 53-52 with 1:20 to play. Jarrells then hit a 3-pointer from the corner late in the shot clock for a four-point edge with just 30 seconds left.
Burks' career high for points included six in the final 90 seconds as the Mocs rallied. Though both teams struggled from the field, the fifth-year senior was 6-of-10 and made all four of her free throws. Her late layup gave UTC the lead for good.
16. Furman managed that few points during the second half, when it shot 4-of-24, including just 1-of-11 from 3-point range. The Paladins came in averaging nearly 70 points per game and shooting 44% from the field. The UTC defense, after allowing some easy baskets early, contested everything in the second half and forced several key turnovers late.
The rally in the fourth quarter was dramatic, but the game turned in the final two minutes of the first half. Furman led 36-25 after a Petty 3-pointer, but UTC's Williams converted a drive and Jarrells scored five straight points to make it a four-point game at halftime. Without that run the second-half comeback would have been much tougher to pull off.
WHAT IT MEANS
Watching Burrows in postgame interviews says it all. UTC's second-year head coach literally was shaking with excitement with the knowledge that, at 3-1 in SoCon play, all the struggles of the nonconference part of the season are now behind her team.
Burrows on the significance of Saturday's win: "As we were struggling through nonconference play — and it was a really tough schedule — it has prepared us for this. We talked about having a clean slate, but what are you going to do with it? I can't express how pumped I am for the kids. They could have quit, but they have that grit and decided to pull up their pants and go for it."
Burrows on Jarrells, whose late 3-pointer put the Mocs up six: "Dena Jarrells, our freshman, is no longer a freshman. She was wide open, and we showed great patience on that play. We have total confidence in her making that shot. Otherwise, she wouldn't have been on the floor."
Burks on the team's improvement: "Today was so much fun. I'm just so grateful for this bunch. When it gets tough, we know how to fight. All our hard work is starting to pay off. We're only going to continue to get better and keep working on little things."