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AP photo by Butch Dill / South Alabama forward Josh Ayeni, left, defends as Auburn guard Jamal Johnson shoots on Nov. 12, 2019, in Mobile, Ala. Ayeni, a 6-foot-8, 212-pound forward, is joining UTC for the 2020-21 season as a graduate transfer.

Josh Ayeni had his best game of the 2019-20 season in McKenzie Arena while playing for South Alabama.

He hopes to have a full season of similar success for the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga next season.

Ayeni will spend his final year of college basketball eligibility at UTC as a graduate transfer, a decision he announced Tuesday afternoon on Twitter. He is the third graduate transfer to join the Mocs since Lamont Paris became coach in April 2017.

The first two were former University of Alabama at Birmingham center Thomas Smallwood, who joined UTC for the 2018-19 season and averaged 6.2 points and shot 47% from 3-point range, and former Notre Dame and Vanderbilt forward Matt Ryan, who was an All-Southern Conference second-team selection this past season after averaging 14.5 points and making 86 3-pointers to help the Mocs go 20-11.

"One of the biggest things grad transfers provide is experience in all facets of developing a program," Paris said in a report this spring on GoMocs.com, the official website of UTC athletics. "It's been good both ways ... we've been able to provide an opportunity to play more in different roles with a mutual benefit."

Ayeni, who was born in Nigeria and played high school basketball at St. Frances Academy in Baltimore, began his collegiate career in at St. Bonaventure, where he started 40 of the 56 games he played in two seasons for the New York program. He had 17 double-digit scoring performances and averaged 6.1 points and 2.7 rebounds in his time with the Bonnies.

He transferred to South Alabama in 2018, and after sitting out a season per NCAA regulations, played in just eight games for the Jaguars this past season — when he was listed at 6-foot-8 and 212 pounds on the roster — and averaged 2.3 points and 2.1 rebounds. His best performance was against the host Mocs on Nov. 15, when he scored 12 points in 17 minutes as South Alabama lost 90-72.

"I liked the atmosphere of the arena," Ayeni told the Times Free Press on Tuesday night. "The fans are real close to you, and it feels like you can get that real love from fans.

"I liked the style of play (of the Mocs). They work hard, and the bigs are involved with the offense."

His signing should complete what has been a fluid roster reconstruction after last season's successful campaign that ended with UTC reaching the SoCon tournament semifinals. Ryan and guard Jonathan Scott each was in his final college season, and the Mocs lost three other players as graduate transfers: forwards Justin Brown (Wagner) and Rod Johnson (Western Illinois) and guard Maurice Commander (Illinois-Chicago).

Ayeni is the fourth player to join the program since the end of the season. The Mocs previously announced the signings of three transfers: former James Madison guard Darius Banks (who scored 1,069 points in three seasons), former Saint Louis forward KC Hankton and, most recently, former Sam Houston State forward Mark Tikhonenko. In addition, Malachi Smith, an All-Horizon League freshman guard in 2018-19 at Wright State, will be eligible after sitting out this past season.

Junior guard A.J. Caldwell, a former walk-on, was recently placed on scholarship.

Contact Gene Henley at ghenley@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @genehenley3.

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