Matt Ryan sat at the postgame interview table on the bottom floor of McKenzie Arena, his eyes lowered, his face a perfect mix of anger, frustration and regret.
"I'm sick to my stomach right now," the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga senior forward said as he stared at a stat sheet somewhat explaining the Mocs' 64-61 loss to Western Carolina University on Saturday afternoon.
"That's not a game we should lose. We're a better team and they beat us twice."
Catamounts fans up in Cullowhee, North Carolina, surely would dispute that. And the cold, hard numbers would back them up. The Catamounts topped the Mocs 87-77 back on Dec. 3 inside their own Ramsey Center. They completed the sweep inside a Bigger Mac loosely estimated to have welcomed 3,188 fans.
"I thought they out-scrapped us twice," UTC coach Lamont Paris said. "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. That's not what I want to be known for as a team."
In some ways, the stats told a different story. The Mocs won the second-chance points category by 17-9. They had eight steals to only two for WCU. They had five more assists (12-7) and four fewer turnovers (13-9) to more than validate their unofficial Scrappy Mocs moniker.
But one 24-second sequence clearly explained the bitterness rolling off the lips of both Ryan and Paris. That small window of time occurred between the 1:41 and 1:17 marks of the second half, when the Mocs — up three points at the time — twice failed to secure a defensive rebound that would have given them back the ball owning a three-point cushion.
Instead, the Catamounts' Mason Faulkner — who led all scorers with 18 points — hit a layup after his teammates' two misses to pull the visitors within a single point at 57-56. Thirty-nine seconds later, the Catamounts had regained the lead on their way to their 14th win of the year against seven defeats and their sixth Southern Conference victory in 10 contests. UTC fell to 14-9 overall and 5-5 in league play.
Said Ryan, repeating Paris's words to his team: "Making shots is out of a player's control. Rebounding is within a player's control."
Added a perturbed Paris, knowing those two late lost rebounds were a huge part of WCU's 44-39 advantage on the glass: "They got two offensive rebounds on that play and cut it from three to one. I can't tell you how many loose balls we were beaten to."
Counting missed shots, there were a lot of loose balls to be gotten. The Catamounts missed 34 of 58 overall (41.4% makes) and 19 of 23 3-pointers (17.4%). Somehow, the Mocs were noticeably worse, hitting only 33.8% overall, which was their worst field-goal-shooting rate of the year for a home game.
"They shot it poorly," Paris said. "We one-upped them."
But that's not what most upset the third-year coach, nor should it have been. This was, as both Paris and Ryan acknowledged, a revenge game. UTC had lost at WCU. The two teams were dead-even in the SoCon standings. Time to even the score. It's what every team in the country seeks to do after losing the first game of a home-and-home series. Especially when the return game is on your own court.
But all those loose balls the Mocs failed to secure didn't much resemble a team determined to avenge anything. This isn't to say UTC played as if it didn't want to win. Just maybe that it didn't look like a team for which losing was not an option.
Or as Paris said, "It's a winnable game. It was more than a winnable game. You have to be subservient to winning at all costs."
This doesn't mean that there aren't a number of winnable games remaining for the Mocs. But there are also a number of possible, if not probable losses, beginning with Wednesday night's visit from East Tennessee State University. UTC lost by 11 at ETSU on Jan. 25, a respectable defeat. But these are also the same Buccaneers who won by 11 at LSU, which is currently atop the Southeastern Conference standings with an 8-0 league mark.
Then there are the remaining road games to snake pits such as Wofford, Furman, The Citadel and VMI. And one of the three remaining home games after ETSU comes against UNC Greensboro, which crushed the Mocs 72-52 on Jan. 18. Against opponents such as those, games seen as winnable need to be won.
Still, as Ryan said as he noted that the Mocs haven't lost two straight games this season since dropping back-to-back contests to high majors Florida State and Tennessee in November: "One positive about this group is that we bounce back after a loss."
But Paris, clearly stung by the loose balls his much-improved team failed to secure, was also right when he said, "We need to respond in a way that keeps this from happening again."
Because while being out-shot is excusable, being out-scrapped is not.