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Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / UTC's Darius Banks (5), a first-year transfer from James Madison University, battles Mercer's Jovan Tucker (11) for a loose ball during Wednesday night's SoCon game at McKenzie Arena. Banks scored 10 points, all in the second half, to help the Mocs rally from 19 points down in the first half to win 83-80.

As it turns out, adding a three-year starter who scored more than 1,000 points for his previous college basketball program can make your team better.

For the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga men and coach Lamont Paris, the immediate result Wednesday night was an 83-80 win against Mercer at McKenzie Arena.

It took a while for Darius Banks, who was making his UTC and Southern Conference debuts, and his teammates to get going. The offense wasn't clicking, with the Mocs missing 22 of their first 26 shots, and the defense was worse as the Bears got every look they wanted while building a 40-21 lead late in the first half.

The period ended with a 10-0 run by the Mocs, though. Then UTC senior forward Stefan Kenic, who had been rolling all game long, kept up his hot scoring while others — including Banks, who scored all 10 of his points in the second half — came on.

And while the win wasn't picture perfect, it was a sign there could be better days ahead for the Mocs (11-3, 2-3).

Banks, a 6-foot-6, 218-pound forward who transferred from James Madison University and was cleared to play by the NCAA on Dec. 16, had initially decided against playing this season. On Wednesday evening, he said his mom Latasha Bristol and Paris had talked him into giving it a shot, basically saying "Why not?" in a season when the NCAA is granting a free year of eligibility.

What does Banks bring? Experience and an additional voice on the court, if nothing else. His 10 points, which included two free throws with eight seconds remaining in a one-point game, were big, but equally so was his communication on the defensive end of the court that led to all the stops that helped UTC get back into a game in which it looked lost at one point.

"I'll hear him say some things in the huddle and put it in our terminology," Paris said. "When the players say things, it has real merit to it, real teeth to it. There's some stuff from a leadership standpoint that he was able to say to get us corralled."

Kenic led all scorers with 27 points, a career high he built on shooting 8-for-13 from the field — including 4-for-5 from 3-point range — and 7-for-8 from the foul line. David Jean-Baptiste was next in scoring for the Mocs with 20 points and tied Kenic and Malachi Smith for the team-best honor in rebounds with seven while adding four assists. Smith had 14 points, while Banks added three rebounds, two assists and two steals to his scoring.

Ross Cummings led Mercer (7-4, 0-3) with 22 points, with 19 coming in the first half, and Felipe Haase added 15 with nine rebounds.

The Mocs host Wofford at 2 p.m. Saturday.

Photo Gallery

UTC vs. Mercer men's basketball on Jan 13, 2021

Mocs star

When UTC couldn't get things going in the first half, it was Kenic who kept the Mocs close on the scoreboard. His standout performance, which included seven rebounds, came against the Bears' front line of Haase (6-9) and Maciej Bender (6-11).

 

Key stats

After scoring 21 points in the first 17 minutes and 35 seconds, the Mocs scored 62 in the final 22:25. And after they missed 22 of their first 26 shots, they made 24 of their final 33.

 

Turning point

The Mocs scored the final 10 points of the first half, a run that extended to 16-0 in the second half as the Bears were held without a field goal for 4:26.

 

Quotable

"Before the game, (UTC sports information director) Jim (Horten) told me that 19 points was the record for the comeback, so we thought we'd get down as much as we could and try to come back." — Paris

"The guys kept fighting and getting things done when we needed them to. — Paris

"I've been practicing with these guys and working out with them, and I just realized I should be on the floor and battling with them." — Banks

"We're very excited because we're finally going to have some guys coming off the bench who can help us." — Kenic

 

Final thought

The Times Free Press had alluded on multiple occasions to the possibility of Banks joining the team at some point this season, and Wednesday it finally happened. UTC's roster situation will continue to be fluid as forward K.C. Hankton and guard Grant Ledford could return soon from injuries, but the team has shown it can be solid under any circumstances. Still, if Paris and the Mocs get a full roster? Watch out.

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

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