University of Tennessee at Chattanooga guard Malachi Smith said multiple times this season that the Mocs' lack of depth on the basketball court would not result in sympathy from opponents.
"No one is going to feel sorry for us right now," Smith said after the Mocs improved to 8-0 with a road win at the University of Alabama at Birmingham on Dec. 16. "It's a pandemic, obviously, and there are a lot of teams going through different stuff."
Saturday afternoon in the Southern Conference tournament, a team that had gone through a lot of stuff came up against a challenge too mighty even for it.
Fifth-seeded East Tennessee State University, hungry for redemption after the Mocs won two tight contests to sweep the regular-season series with their rivals from Johnson City, won the third meeting of the season with UTC, 63-53 in the SoCon quarterfinals at Harrah's Cherokee Center in Asheville, North Carolina.
The fourth-seeded Mocs played without Smith — a 6-foot-4 redshirt sophomore and All-SoCon first-team selection who led the team in scoring, rebounding, assists and minutes played during the regular season — and senior forward Darius Banks due to a "positive COVID-19 test and contract tracing within the team's Tier 1 personnel," according to a UTC release.
Although the Buccaneers (13-11) proved to be too much this time, the 2020-21 Mocs (18-8) have overcome challenges from the beginning, going undefeated in nonconference play to set a program record with a 9-0 start.
Sophomore Grant Ledford, a potential starter entering the season, was injured prior to the opener and didn't debut until Saturday. Mark Tikhonenko, who's from Russia, had to leave the country after two games and never returned. Trey Doomes opted out after the first semester. David Jean-Baptiste put his name in the NCAA transfer portal, though he returned after missing four games and was back in time for league play.
The Mocs played games with seven available bodies, in part due to players such as Smith, who averaged 16.8 points and 8.8 rebounds per game. Banks, a 1,000-point scorer in three seasons at James Madison, didn't join the team until Jan. 13 after initially choosing not to suit up for the Mocs despite the NCAA issuing a blanket waiver that allowed transfers such as Banks and Saint Louis transfer forward K.C. Hankton to be immediately eligible. But in 12 games for the Mocs, Banks had averaged 11.2 points and four rebounds while becoming a steadying presence, averaging 33.4 minutes per game.
Not having Banks and Smith added another challenge to taking on ETSU.
Without one of them? UTC may have been OK. Without both? The Mocs were ultimately overwhelmed by the Bucs despite hanging around until the end.
Jamaal Walker had struggled to make shots in conference play — he was 2-for-20 from 3-point range in his past 12 games entering Saturday — but the 6-foot-5 freshman guard knocked down a pair from long range in the second half and had a team-high 16 points against the Bucs. The only other Moc in double figures was Stefan Kenic (11).
The Mocs shot just 32% Saturday against the Bucs, their second-worst shooting performance of the season. They made just 31% in a win over Tennessee Tech on Nov. 29.
After a Walker dunk cut ETSU's lead to 51-49 with 3:27 remaining, the Mocs went three consecutive possessions without a bucket. ETSU scored on three of its next four possessions in that span, which allowed the Bucs — who had four double-digit scoring performances in the game from Damari Monsanto (18 with 10 rebounds), David Sloan (17), Ledarrius Brewer (11) and Ty Brewer (10) — to pull away.
"We were shorthanded, missing some guys in our rotation, and that made it tough. When you lose at a moment's notice two guys who play 30-plus minutes a game, you have to change things on the fly. That reared its ugly head in a lot of ways tonight." — UTC coach Lamont Paris on the absence of Smith and Banks
"It all kind of happened so fast. I'm just grateful for everything the city has done for me and this team, and I'm so grateful for the opportunity." — Jean-Baptiste, who was a fifth-year senior this season
After two great battles between rivals in the regular season, it really stunk for their biggest matchup of the year to be marred by the absences of Banks and Smith. It will take some time to process exactly what this season represents for UTC, between the winning streak to start, a six-game winning streak in February that followed a COVID-19 shutdown, the losses, the gains, the highs and the lows. But what can't be disputed is that despite all of the challenges, Paris has built something in Chattanooga. That something is built on toughness, because with all the roster attrition this season, a lesser team would have folded. But quite literally until the very end, the Mocs kept fighting — and that can't be overlooked.