Lamont Paris's first University of Tennessee at Chattanooga men's basketball team was the youngest in the country in 2017-18, with six freshmen and one senior who wasn't even part of the program until the second half of the season. The second group of Mocs coached by Paris was the nation's seventh-youngest team in terms of experience.
So down the stretch of Wednesday's 74-67 win at Western Carolina, it had to be considered a luxury of sorts for Paris to glance out on the court and see an entire lineup of UTC players with multiple years of college experience capable of finishing the task.
The first half of the seven-point Southern Conference win at the Ramsey Center in Cullowhee, North Carolina, was anything but pretty. That's not overly surprising, as UTC hadn't played since losing 74-66 to UNC Greensboro on Jan. 23, which preceded a one-week shutdown for the program after a positive COVID-19 test. It equaled an 11-day layoff in between games, but that may not have been such a bad thing for a team that has played portions of the season with sometimes just eight or nine bodies available for games.
The Mocs (13-5, 4-5) had 10 against the Catamounts (8-10, 1-8), although just eight played. One of those eight, sophomore Prosper Obidiebube, hadn't played since Dec. 12, but he was pressed into duty as senior Josh Ayeni missed the game due to quarantine.
Down the stretch, though, Obidiebube wasn't needed. Apparently neither was Ayeni, as the Mocs were able to turn to senior David Jean-Baptiste, senior Darius Banks and sophomore Malachi Smith to make plays. The trio scored 40 of the Mocs' 46 second-half points, helping the team overcome an eight-point second-half deficit.
Smith finished with 22 points, adding five rebounds, five steals and four assists. Banks and Jean-Baptiste had 18 points each, with Banks adding six rebounds and three assists. K.C. Hankton, who started in place of Ayeni, finished with 11 points, including the six second-half points not scored by the aforementioned three, who obviously led the way.
"When I look back, I don't find myself talking about crazy decisions we made very often," Paris said. "Execution maybe, but not just wild decisions. Oftentimes in close games, rather than making plays to win a game you make plays to lose a game, and so having older guys, the chances of that are not as good, and that's ben a good thing for us and it certainly was today."
Western Carolina's Xavier Cork had 18 points as all five starters for the Catamounts scored in double figures.
The Mocs travel to face East Tennessee State (11-6, 7-2) at 4 p.m. Saturday before finishing a three-game road swing next Wednesday at Wofford.
Picking his spots in the second half, Jean-Baptiste finished with 13 of his 18 points in the final 20 minutes, playing all but 20 seconds of the final stanza. Early after his return from a brief stint in the NCAA transfer portal, the fifth-year senior was more aggressive from the beginning, but he has since eased into games and allowed others to get involved.
The Mocs aren't a high-pressure defensive team, but they do a really good job of turning turnovers into points. That was the case against the Catamounts, as UTC turned 16 takeaways into 21 points and improved to 6-0 when scoring at least 20 points off an opponent's turnovers.
The Mocs allowed only one field goal in a 5:21 span of the second half and used a 13-2 run in that frame to pull away from the Catamounts.
"It was a physical and a mental break. We were losing our way, not being ourselves, so I think that week off gave us a chance to focus on us and focus on winning games Wednesday and Saturday. As soon as a game is over, you've got to focus on the next one and you can't dwell on what you did wrong for long, but with that week off we got to look at everything that we've been doing wrong for an entire week and it let us look in the mirror for a longer period of time and see where our flaws were." — Smith on how the team used the week off
"We have to compete. No matter the score, no matter who has the momentum or who is making a run, we have to compete for 40 minutes on both sides of the floor." — Jean-Baptiste on how the team can improve on its recent struggles in Saturday games
Although struggling this season, Western Carolina is a good team with good players. For the Mocs to go on the road and get a win after a layoff was impressive, but the challenges ahead are much larger. The Mocs went 0-4 on Saturdays last month, and they haven't beaten East Tennessee State since the 2016 SoCon tournament's title game. More rested now, the Mocs should be ready to play 40 minutes — but they have to shake off recent history and get a win against the Buccaneers.