The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga women's basketball team won its Southern Conference opener Saturday at McKenzie Arena, 66-51 against East Tennessee State University. It marked another successful start to league play for the Mocs, who exactly one year earlier began their SoCon schedule by winning 59-52 at Western Carolina.
By all accounts, though, this UTC team isn't the same as that one — and this home win over the Buccaneers wasn't the same as that January 2020 victory in Cullowhee, North Carolina.
The current Mocs thoroughly controlled this game against the Bucs (2-6, 0-1) to post their fourth straight victory and improve to 6-4 overall; last year's win against the Catamounts was only the second of the season and snapped an 11-game losing streak for UTC. Coach Katie Burrows' third Mocs team — the former UTC player and assistant has won each of her SoCon openers since taking over the program — is better, deeper, appears more confident in what it does and, most importantly, looks like a group with solid chemistry.
It was easy to point to this season's early losses to the University of Alabama at Birmingham and Troy — both marred by really bad quarters the Mocs couldn't overcome — and believe there hadn't been much progress under Burrows, who led the program to a share of the SoCon regular-season title last year. However, when they faced UAB and Troy to start this season, the Mocs hadn't practiced much due to a COVID-19 shutdown, and the Blazers and the Trojans are both pretty good teams, with a combined 11-7 record to date in 2020-21.
UTC has six of eight since that 0-2 start, and the team has developed an identity, led by the combination of senior Bria Dial and junior Eboni Williams, who combined for 38 points and 19 rebounds in Saturday's win.
"They know their strengths and how they can make them known," Burrows said. "I'm really proud of how they're playing together. We have so many players to complement that."
Other players have consistently stepped up, too; Saturday it was sophomore guard Dena Jarrells, who scored 12 points and had three assists. While UTC's trouble with turnovers persisted with 18 more miscues against the Bucs, the defense has been solid, as ETSU was held to 31% shooting.
Carly Hooks led the Bucs with 13 points and Shynia Jackson added 12; no other ETSU player scored more than six.
Dial's presence always makes a positive impact for UTC because of her experience, but when she's scoring like she was against ETSU (20 points with 3-for-7 shooting from 3-point range), it only adds to her game because she's already doing the other little things on the court. Her scoring is just a plus.
Mykia Dowdell entered the game as ETSU's leading points producer this season at 11.4 per game, but the Mocs held her scoreless. UTC's team defense shut down the 5-foot-9 redshirt sophomore forward, who was 0-for-5 from the field and missed both of her 3-point tries at McKenzie. Going into the game, she was shooting 50% both overall and from outside the arc.
UTC has had its struggles to coming out of the halftime locker room this season, and ETSU had gained a slight bit of momentum in the second quarter while going into the break down just 33-29, but it was the Mocs who started the third quarter on an 11-3 run to build a 12-point lead. Their advantage hovered in double digits the rest of the way.
"That's a dangerous combination. If they stop one, the other's going to hit. If you don't stop both of us, you're going to be at a disadvantage." — Williams on how she and Dial affect opposing defenses
"We all play good together. It's more of a family bond, and we know each other at this point." — Dial on the development of team chemistry
When your best players perform like your best players, you're going to win a lot of games. Dial and Williams did just that Saturday, and the end result was not a surprise. Next weekend at Furman will provide another challenging test, especially with the new SoCon women's schedule format that has most teams facing off twice in three days at one site; the Paladins host matchups at 7 p.m. on Friday and at 2 p.m. on Sunday, Jan. 17. (Each team will have one home-and-home series, and ETSU will complete that set with UTC when the Bucs host the Mocs on Feb. 25.) If the Mocs can take care of business at Furman, though, they can come back to Chattanooga 3-0 and having taken a truly solid first step in the league.