One could say they were surprised by the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga's lackluster performance in a 58-40 loss to Furman in the opening round of the Southern Conference women's basketball tournament Thursday night.
For a team that had lacked consistency all season long, though, nothing should be all that surprising.
But disappointing? No doubt.
The third-seeded Mocs (14-10) did what they needed to do on defense to remain in their quarterfinal against the sixth-seeded Paladins (11-13) at Harrah's Cherokee Center in Asheville, North Carolina.
UTC forced 18 turnovers, turning those into 13 points. Furman led 22-6 early in the second quarter, but when the Paladins missed six consecutive shots on two occasions in that period, the Mocs took advantage by closing with a 7-0 run to trail by single digits going into halftime.
It was never a close contest, though. The Mocs were chasing all game long, drawing no closer than seven in the second half and ultimately setting season lows in points (40), assists (three) and 3-pointers made (one), the lone make outside the arc coming off the fingertips of Bria Dial, who led the team with 12 points and hit her long-range shot as part of the seven-point run heading into the break.
"We gave ourselves a chance defensively, but offensively we couldn't connect," UTC coach Katie Burrows said, "and we didn't do the things that we've talked about all year long that made us successful."
Eboni Williams added 11 points, a team-high eight rebounds and a game-high three steals for the Mocs, who trailed 13-6 after the first quarter and were outscored 24-13 in the fourth.
Furman, which split the regular-season series with UTC in Greenville, South Carolina — the Mocs won 68-56 before losing 52-46 two days later in mid-January — was led Thursday by Tate Walters (18 points, eight rebounds, five assists), Tierra Hodges (16 points, 15 rebounds) and Celena Taborn (14 points).
The Mocs and Paladins wrapped up an opening day at the tournament that began with eighth-seeded East Tennessee State upsetting top-seeded Samford 68-61. In the other two quarterfinals, fourth-seeded Wofford beat fifth-seeded UNC Greensboro 78-66 and second-seeded Mercer beat seventh-seeded Western Carolina 76-67.
Putting anyone in this place is a stretch, but the team's most consistent players all season, Dial and junior Abbey Cornelius, were the team's "least bad" options Thursday night. Dial led the team in scoring, while Cornelius blocked four shots and grabbed six rebounds.
A team that averaged nearly 14 assists per game during the regular season had just three helpers Thursday. The ball just didn't move, and UTC didn't have an answer for the Paladins' defensive strategy.
Despite the poor performance, the Mocs found themselves down just seven going into the final period, and they had the ball first to start the fourth. Williams missed a shot, however, and the Paladins started to carve up UTC's defense, making their first five shots and shooting 8-for-10 total in the final quarter, putting away any dreams of a comeback by the Mocs.
"It's just been a lack of focus. We've been on a roller coaster all year long and been inconsistent. When we do that (focus), we do a good job and we get quality looks. It's a number of factors in every game, but we did not play together as a team, not offensively at least." — Burrows
A season that began with promise comes to a bitter close (most likely). It was filled with inconsistent efforts and seemingly constant struggles to put multiple quality games together in a row. A loss could be stomached more if it was attached to a consistent effort, but to never know what team the Mocs would put on the court from game to game made them the most unpredictable program in the SoCon, and they had one of their worst offensive performances of the season at the absolute worst time.