Wiedmer: Wade's Mocs deliver bright beginning

Wiedmer: Wade's Mocs deliver bright beginning

November 9th, 2013 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

UTC's Alex Bran (14) drives around Covenant's William Portlock (3) Friday evening at McKenzie Arena.

Photo by Dan Henry /Times Free Press.

It couldn't last forever Friday night. At some point, Covenant College was going to score a point on Will Wade's first University of Tennessee at Chattanooga men's basketball team.

And so the Scots finally did with 14:54 to go in the first half on a 3-pointer from Colton McGriff. Of course, the Mocs had 14 by that point on their way to a 119-56, season-opening win.

Even then, the perfectionist in Wade found room for improvement.

"As a coach, you're always looking for things," he said. "I wished we'd battled fatigue a little better. We had a defensive lull in the second half. We could have shot the 3 better."

Then he paused, perhaps mindful of how such a critique might sound to those 4,637 souls inside McKenzie Arena who made this the biggest crowd for a UTC home opener since 1995.

So Wade soon added of his first-ever win as a head coach at any level of the sport: "It feels great. But we're on to Monday now."

The Mocs visit Radford that night, and the Division I Highlanders figure to be a good deal better than the Division III (nonscholarship) Scots.

Yet regardless of the quality of the opponent, the hustle stats from the opening act of Wade's "Chaos" defense were tough to ignore.

From the 34 forced turnovers, including 19 steals, to a 49-31 rebounding edge, to all 10 Mocs who played scoring at least six points (and seven finishing in double figures) this was surely what UTC athletic director David Blackburn had in mind when he hired Wade from Shaka Smart's Virginia Commonwealth staff last May.

"This is one of the fastest teams I've ever seen," said UTC student Charlie Marczynski, who arrived at 4 p.m. for the 5:30 tipoff to get a front-row seat. "I came to every game last season. I was voted the Moc fan of the year. From what I've seen tonight we're going to win the Southern Conference and get to the second round of the NCAA tournament. I think we'll beat Connecticut."

Said his fellow fanatics on the front row -- Austin Quarels and Ryan Gentle, a former UTC walk-on: "We love Coach Wade."

If freshman point guard Greg Pryor can keep turning in the numbers he did against the Scots -- 14 points, four assists, four steals and only one turnover -- a lot of people may believe in this team's postseason chances come March.

Nor was Pryor the only Moc turning in notable numbers. Z. Mason finished with 16 points, eight rebounds and five blocks. Gee McGhee led all scorers with 19 points and seven assists. Lance Stokes collected 13 points, five rebounds and five assists, earning this high praise from Wade: "He gives us energy."

But games like are mostly about injecting some energy back into a fan base worn down by three losing seasons in the last four years.

So with a little help from assistant Brooks Savage -- "I've got really smart guys who work with me," Wade said -- the Mocs entered between sections 208 and 209, descending the bleachers to the court from the concourse, a la Bruce Pearl's Tennessee Volunteers, for whom Savage worked as a graduate assistant.

Then, when the game ended, they returned to the stands to thank the fans for piling into McKenzie as they never did a year ago.

Said fan Tommye Byington as she awaited the start of the Lady Mocs' win over Alabama, "Oh, my goodness. Such wonderful public relations. Very special."

Finally, Wade made good on his pledge to donate $500 to the student group that brought the largest percentage of its organization to the game. Delta Epsilon won the money.

For the UTC men it was a single win against an overmatched foe. Six of the next eight games are on the road. From facts such as those does Wade have every reason to be cautious.

But it's still a blindingly bright beginning for both Wade and first-year women's coach Jim Foster.

Said the sophomore McGhee of that start: "We got a lot of fans today. There will be more fans next game. This is just the beginning."

And perhaps never has a basketball season begun better for both the Mocs and Lady Mocs on the same night in the same building.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com