Wiedmer: Mason fans give some perspective in tough loss

Wiedmer: Mason fans give some perspective in tough loss

February 21st, 2014 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Gee McGhee of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga is sandwiched between Georgia Southern's Marvin Baynham, left, and Jelani Hewitt Thursday at McKenzie Arena.

Gee McGhee of the University of Tennessee at...

Photo by Angela Lewis /Times Free Press.

They took up the entire lower north end zone of McKenzie Arena on Thursday night, 98 sixth-graders from Christ Presbyterian Academy in Nashville, all of them cheering their young lungs out for CPA alum and University of Tennessee at Chattanooga senior forward Zaccheus Mason against Georgia Southern.

They even wore highlighter yellow T-shirts with a block "Z" on the front that strongly resembled the "Superman" logo. On the shirts' backs were the words "Go Mocs" with "CPA and UTC" printed underneath.

In the end it didn't matter against the lowly Eagles. Blowing an early 12-point lead, the Mocs shockingly lost 77-61, trailing by as many as 19 points with 5:34 to play.

But it also brought some perspective to Mason about sports and life and what it can mean to be a role model to 11- and 12-year-old young people.

"That was really cool," Mason said later -- his 21 points, seven rebounds and two blocked shots almost assuredly really, really cool to the CPA kids. "I don't really know how to respond. It's an honor. I was down about the loss, but after seeing that, it changed my mentality about everything."

Some might say this loss changes the mentality of the UTC fan base, which has been floating on air since the start of 2014, the Mocs having gone undefeated at home in Southern Conference play while standing 10-2 in the league overall.

After all, this wasn't dynastic Davidson that mashed the Mocs. This was Georgia Southern, which entered McKenzie with a 4-8 SoCon record and an 11-16 overall record. Worse than that, the Eagles had lost four in a row prior to this one by an average of 10 points.

"We just didn't have it the last 25 minutes," UTC coach Will Wade said. "We reverted back to bad habits I thought we'd gotten rid of. We took a huge step backward tonight."

Particularly in the second half, which began as one of the monstrosities that all basketball coaches fear, especially one played in the shadows of March. Casey Jones, so often a rock of consistency for the Mocs, committed three turnovers before the second half was three minutes old. Thanks to some interesting officiating and disinterested defense, a two-point UTC halftime deficit swelled to 10 points before the final period was four minutes old.

Then Ronrico White -- who began Thursday hitting nearly 84 percent of his free throws -- missed two straight that could have cut the deficit to five. Emboldened by such an unexpected gift, the Eagles promptly buried a 3-pointer to again push the Mocs down 10. Soon the deficit was 12 with 11:47 to go.

And to make all this feel so much worse, UTC was on top by 12 with 5:23 to play in the opening half, seemingly in command

Then again, Boston College stood just 6-19 overall and 2-10 within the Atlantic Coast Conference before it won Wednesday night at previously undefeated, top-ranked Syracuse. Sometimes even the ball that supposedly bounces straight takes some funny hops.

Yet there was little funny about this night for those in UTC blue and gold, or those sixth-graders from CPA, whose near-constant chants of "Deee-fense! Deee-fense!" as the deficit swelled to 18, then 19, were arguably the most passion displayed by anyone in Bigger Mac all evening other than the Eagles.

This seeming lack of passion and purpose by the home team eventually became so distasteful to Wade that he sent White, Jones and Gee McGhee to the bench for good with more than five minutes to go.

And while it would be nice to say that both the Mocs' excitement and execution improved, a Mason outlet pass inside the final two minutes wound back up in the hands of the Eagles because UTC point guard Greg Pryor failed to turn around to look for the ball.

Yet that should take away nothing from all those kids who were supposed to watch Mason and the Mocs during last week's win over Western Carolina before snow forced them to change plans at the last minute.

"We'd had the T-shirts made for two months," said CPA assistant principal Patrick Jordan. "But when the snow hit, we had to change everything."

So instead of spending last Wednesday, Thursday and Friday in the Scenic City for their field trip, they spent this week, taking a river cruise Wednesday, seeing the Aquarium before the Mocs game, then taking in Raccoon Mountain today before heading home.

"This was a great way to connect with an alum of our school and see where future dreams can take you," said CPA athletic director Mike Ellson. "Most of these kids were in kindergarten when Z was a senior, but now they get to meet him."

Because UTC saluted its athletes' academic achievements Thursday, the kids from CPA also got to meet fellow alumns Hannah Thurley (softball) and Kelley Light (cheerleader) as well as Austin Watson, who's now a part of the school's security staff.

But whom they most wanted to see was Mason, the Mocs' leading scorer. So when he finished his media obligations after the loss, he walked back into the arena to see his cheering section forming a "Z" in their seats and chanting "We love Z! We love Z!"

Later, as he spoke to them wearing an XXL version of the shirts they were wearing, he told them, "Just seeing you all come down the steps before the game was the best part of the night."

By the end of the game, it was also easily the best part for 3,743 Mocs fans.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com