Once upon a time, a Southern Conference men's basketball game between East Tennessee State University and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga was a must-see matchup, regardless of where it was played — Johnson City, the Scenic City or the conference tournament in Asheville, North Carolina.
The gyms were always filled and rocking. The occasional fight broke out. The fans were on edge before, during and after, even if it was sometimes hard to tell them apart, ETSU's blue and gold looking awfully similar to UTC's blue and gold.
But despite another renewal of that most lasting and storied of SoCon hoops rivalries Wednesday night at McKenzie Arena, that old level of excitement and contentiousness and downright fun never really materialized before, during or after ETSU's 80-64 win, which was also its 10th straight in a rivalry that has been played 90 times.
Sure, the Mocs led this one 35-29 at the break. But only 2,823 fans were officially listed as being in the stands, which is hardly the stuff of a memorable atmosphere. Even the presence of Pro Football Hall of Famer and UTC alum Terrell Owens in the house, sunglasses and all, didn't produce the electricity he sometimes did when moonlighting on the hardwood, such as when he twice stole the ball against Western Carolina and soared in for rim-rattling jams on the other end.
So for all these Mocs seem to have improved in Lamont Paris's third season as their coach, they now stand 14-10 overall and 5-6 in conference play, which leaves them all alone in seventh place heading into a tough road game Saturday at Wofford.
"We played well enough for 33 minutes of the game," said Paris, and he was right. The Mocs were within 56-53 at that point after leading by as many as seven points in the final half.
But from that point on it was all ETSU, which improved to 20-4, having now won at least 20 games for five years in a row, as clear an example as any that the good old days of this rivalry fade further and further from memory.
"We practice tomorrow," Paris said. "We've got to get some stuff squared away."
Practice and preparation are one thing. Talent, or lack thereof, is another. For 20 minutes, executing their coach's game plan to perfection, it seemed to be pretty much all the Mocs could have hoped for against a seemingly superior foe. They led by six at the break. UTC was outrebounding ETSU 17-12. The hosts had held the Buccaneers to 17% shooting from behind the arc while hitting 54% from the floor overall, 67% from the 3-point stripe and 100% from the foul line.
But those stats also screamed of trouble, for to have played so well in some areas and to lead by but six strongly hinted something was wrong. Seriously wrong. And that problem was turnovers. The Mocs had eight at the break to only two for the Bucs.
"We weren't happy at halftime," admitted UTC post player Ramon Vila afterward. "We knew we could have been up more."
Indeed, because of those Mocs miscues, ETSU led in points off turnovers, 12-4. It led in fast break points, 6-0, and in bench points, 5-0. By game's end, points off turnovers favored the Bucs 18-7.
Asked if ETSU's apparent edge in speed and quickness was a factor in those turnovers, Paris admitted: "They are quicker than us. Some of it is athleticism and length."
Some of it is also Bucs coach Steve Forbes and assistants Frank Davis, B.J. McKie, Brooks Savage and Jason Shay being five years into a remarkable run. If you want a dark horse come March Madness to win at least a game or two on the NCAA tournament's opening weekend, you could do worse than pick the Bucs, who already own one of the five biggest mid-major wins of the season with their 11-point humbling of Southeastern Conference leader LSU in Baton Rouge, of all places.
So losing to ETSU isn't a disgrace, even if the second half score of 51-29 is hardly the stuff to generate future hope.
It does underscore how small the margin for error is with these Mocs. This isn't the old days, when ETSU's talent and UTC's talent were remarkably similar and each school represented the SoCon in the NCAA tourney on multiple occasions throughout the 1990s.
"Teams that are really good don't let that happen," Paris said of his team's second-half collapse.
True, but seven games from the close of the regular season, no one is labeling the Mocs a really good team. Those days are either long gone or yet to return. But the fact that they led ETSU for nearly 19 minutes on Wednesday night at least hints that one day in the future, we'll witness an ETSU-UTC clash in McKenzie and declare that everything old is new again.