In hindsight, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga basketball team running those hills every summer on the North Shore of Chattanooga probably wasn't all that bad after all.
Of course there was complaining — the Mocs would run as many as 40 times up that hill — but as the 2020-21 season has progressed and players have either opted out or been unable to play, UTC's roster has been stripped nearly bare, to the point that it played Wednesday's game against Samford with just six scholarship players and eight total after junior guard Trey Doomes chose to opt out of the rest of the season earlier in the week.
Yet against a Bulldogs team that plays one of the fastest paces in the country the Mocs' stamina held up. Nobody played 40 minutes — sophomore guard Malachi Smith played the most at 38 minutes, 45 seconds — and while six players played at least 23, they had enough at the end for a 73-68 victory to improve to 10-2 on the year and get their first Southern Conference victory in three tries.
The strength and conditioning team, led by Tyler Dobratz, consistently put the team through the paces all summer while the coaching staff, led by Lamont Paris, watched.
"It's 3 o'clock, it's hot," said Smith, who finished with 21 points, six assists and five rebounds, recalling those summer workouts. "But if you tell your mind to do something, you'll do it. So a lot of the stuff we did prepared us for when we're tired and trying to get to the next media (timeout)."
David Jean-Baptiste scored 16 of his game-high 22 points in the first half, while A.J. Caldwell nearly had a triple-double with 11 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists. Josh Ayeni had his best game of the season with 10 points and four rebounds, while Stefan Kenic had nine points, five rebounds and three assists.
The Mocs travel to face the Citadel — an opponent that plays a faster pace than Samford — on Saturday.
Caldwell is always one to do the little things on the court and Wednesday was no exception. He made the extra pass, fought and battled for rebounds, and took advantage of open opportunities from 3-point range. In this space, you know we like to look at the plus/minus to help determine the most impactful players on the court, and Caldwell was a team-best plus-nine in 37 minutes and 46 seconds.
The Mocs won Wednesday on the defensive end, where they held Samford to its second lowest point total of the season. The Bulldogs shot a respectable 47% from the field, but the Mocs turned 16 Samford turnovers into 22 points and limited the Bulldogs to just 5-for-24 shooting from 3.
The Mocs had a 9-0 run to build a 57-50 second-half lead, that was predicated bydefense. Samford had eight consecutive scoreless possessions, while the Mocs were able to capitalize with some timely baskets to assume control on the scoreboard.
"I thought we did a good job defensively. The guys showed some grit." — Paris
Paris mentioned after the game that he hopes to get a player or two back soon. No Doomes means that there are limited options, although the team seems optimistic it can get K.C. Hankton back soon after the 6-foot-8 junior has been dealing with an upper-body issue. Grant Ledford could be back, and maybe the emergence of James Madison transfer Darius Banks could happen at some point soon. It's just speculation, but it's also desperation as — hills or not — there's no way the team as presently constructed can deal with 17 more games.
Contact Gene Henley at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @genehenley3.