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Jacksonville State guard Derek St. Hilaire (15), left, and forward Juwan Perdue (10) try to steal the ball from Chattanooga forward Stefan Kenic (33) in the closing seconds seconds in an NCAA college basketball game at the Emerald Coast Classic in Niceville, Fla., Saturday, Nov. 30, 2019. (AP Photo/Mark Wallheiser)

University of Tennessee at Chattanooga power forward Stefan Kenic was walking to class eight days ago when he got a message to meet with third-year Mocs coach Lamont Paris.

Having previously been denied immediate eligibility by the NCAA after transferring from Cleveland (Ohio) State over the summer, Kenic sensed that the meeting concerned his appeal to college athletics' governing body. Having watched his close friend Uros Plavsic lose his own appeal weeks earlier to become immediately eligible at Tennessee after a redshirt season sitting out at Arizona State surely heightened his worries about the meeting.

"I knew it would be good news or bad news," the player said.

When Kenic reached Paris's office, the coach handed him his phone. The message from the NCAA read as follows: "(The NCAA) has approved the waiver for Stefan Kenic. As a result, Stefan is immediately eligible."

Said Kenic: "I called my parents in Serbia. I called some good friends there. I was probably on the phone for 30 minutes."

Added Paris, whose 5-3 Mocs begin Southern Conference play tonight at 5-2 Western Carolina: "I couldn't be happier for him. He's an unbelievable kid, and this has been putting a lot of stress on him and his family back in Serbia."

Paris soon added, "It helps our team. Helps with depth. Gives us a 3-point shooter on the floor at the 5 spot. He can affect the game offensively in a variety of ways. He can shoot. He can pass. He can handle the ball."

Two games are too small a sample size to even remotely begin to assess the impact the 6-foot-9, 230-pound junior can have on this Mocs season. But the two games in which Kenic played this past weekend in the Emerald Coast Classic did produce two wins, which delivered UTC the lower-tier bracket title at the event.

Nor did Kenic merely play. He scored 15 points and hauled in five rebounds in 17 minutes against Alabama State. He followed that up with five rebounds again, four points and two assists in 28 minutes against Jacksonville State.

"He's an extremely good shooter," said UTC post player Ramon Vila. "But he can also play inside as well as anyone else on the team. Our team is more complete with him. We're extremely excited."

Small forward Jonathan Scott was equally enthusiastic, noting, "As a big man who can pass and shoot, he helps open the floor. He makes us better."

Western Carolina is certain to test just how much better the Mocs are with Kenic eligible. Whereas Florida State thumped UTC 89-53, the Seminoles barely squeezed out a victory against the Catamounts, beating them 79-74 just five days before facing the Mocs.

"Not really," Paris answered when asked how he liked playing the SoCon opener less than a week into December. "I don't love it."

But he does like what he saw from his team this past weekend in the Sunshine State.

"I learned they want to win and want to win badly," he said. "We can make plays and get ourselves out of a rut. We've now done that three times. We have some fight in us. With so many close games in conference play, I'd rather be winning like that than by 20 points."

For instance, the Mocs came from nine down in the opening half to topple Jacksonville State. They were 12 down at halftime at Troy and won. They came from behind to beat Tennessee State at home.

"We're more bought in to playing on the defensive end than a year ago," Scott said. "We're finally understanding that saying that defense wins championships."

If so, experience may be the biggest reason for that understanding. Nine Mocs are in their third year of college basketball, whether it has come at UTC or elsewhere. Five are in their fourth or fifth seasons.

"We were talking about that the other day," Scott said. "A lot of players are in their fourth seasons. Experience is big-time. There's a maturity level on and off the court that wasn't always there a year ago. Players aren't worried about themselves; they're worried about the team. When we went to the Bahamas (in the summer), we got to spend more time together. We got 10 extra practices to get a step ahead of other programs."

Tonight will be the first chance to see if all that maturity and experience can deliver the Mocs their first NCAA berth since 2016 come March.

"I have amazing teammates. I have amazing coaches," Kenic said a couple of hours before the Mocs would board the bus for Western Carolina. "The coaches work together, no egos. My teammates, no egos. Everybody just wants to win."

And thanks to the NCAA having more compassion for UTC's Kenic than for UT's Plavsic, having the pieces in place to win is far better than nine days ago.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

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