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Staff photo by Angela Lewis/Chattanooga Times Free Press - UTC's Omar Wattad heads past Furman's Charlie Reddick Saturday at McKenzie Arena.

Wednesday afternoon, Omar Wattad will step on the McKenzie Arena court as a coach and not a player.

He won't be sporting the soul patch and the white-and-navy jerseys that he wore for two seasons as a Moc, where he scored 820 points and made 168 3-pointers - the latter of which still ranks fifth all-time in school history - and was an all-Southern Conference selection in 2011.

No, on Wednesday he'll be making his head coaching debut for NCAA Division II Lander University, as the Bearcats will head to Chattanooga for a matchup that begins at 2 and will be televised on ESPN3 (online). UTC announced recently there will be no fans at games through the end of 2020.

In a year where changing on the fly and being flexible with scheduling has proven to be valuable (remember the UTC football team's almost-game against Nebraska?) due to COVID-19, we've gotten to this point thanks to a casual phone conversation between University of North Georgia assistant coach Adam Blake and Wattad, with Blake mentioning that UTC was looking for a game after Bellarmine had to shut its program down for two weeks.

At that time, the Bearcats were scheduled to face USC-Aiken on Tuesday night, but Wattad found out that Aiken had to shut down, leaving an early-season opening for both Lander and the Mocs.

When Wattad found out about his vacancy, he immediately reached out to UTC assistant David McKinley - stepping out of practice to do so - to put the game together.

"We're thankful this worked out," UTC head coach Lamont Paris said. "I'm happy we were able to work everything out in such a short time period and give our guys a chance to play. It's vitally important to us to be safe and smart as we proceed in this environment.

"It's a great job by our administration and sports medicine group to make all this happen on a quick turnaround."

It'll be extra special for Wattad, who gets his head coaching debut after spending six seasons as an assistant at Division II Lincoln Memorial. The Railsplitters won 178 games during his time, claiming five conference championships. The final team he was a part of won its final 32 games and was the No. 2 team in the country before the NCAA tournament was shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic.

He inherits a team that won 23 games last season and had secured a spot in the NCAA Division II national tournament, and one that returns three of its top five scorers from a year ago.

So in many ways, today will be special. New beginnings, new teams, new chapter.

But Wattad hasn't forgot about the chapter where his college career ended.

"It's special," he said. "I'm excited. My parents, my wife, everybody's excited. It's Chattanooga; it's a place that I truly hold near and dear to my heart and have some wonderful memories from my time there. I loved playing in McKenzie Arena; unfortunately, we won't have that same type of juice and environment due to COVID-19, but it's awesome. It really is awesome.

"I'm excited it worked out this way, but the thing I'm most excited about is a chance for our guys to play a great opponent. I think that's the most important thing. It's a player's game; it's about them. So I'm really, really happy for them to be able to get this game."

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

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