It would be easy to blame the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Mocs for Wednesday night's 73-66 loss to Furman at McKenzie Arena rather than praise the Paladins.
After all, when you shoot 73% from the floor — as UTC did in the opening half — you should probably not only be ahead by more than two points at halftime (38-36), you should probably win the game.
But to sit inside a Bigger Mac that should have had at least a couple of thousand more UTC supporters than the 2,815 who showed up loud and proud and ready to help will an 11th victory in 16 games out of their hoops heroes was also to know that the better team won.
The more physical team. The more polished team. The more talented team.
Because this 14th victory of the year for Furman in 17 starts wasn't a fluke. It was a validation of why the Paladins currently sit atop the Southern Conference, all by their lonesome at 4-0. It was also a sobering glimpse at what must be added to the Mocs to win this type of matchup down the road.
"I thought the real difference," said third-year coach Lamont Paris, "was that we had 15 turnovers. When you turn it over 15 times and give up eight second-chance points, you better shoot 72%."
The problem beyond those turnovers and second-chance baskets was that UTC didn't shoot anywhere close to 72 percent in the final half. More like half that (38.5%). The Mocs also got beat on the boards by a 19-14 total over the final 20 minutes after winning the rebounding battle 16-9 in the opening frame. After connecting on five of eight 3-pointers before intermission, the Mocs bagged only two of eight after the break.
"Second half, they started switching more," said Stefan Kenic, who came off the bench to lead UTC with 15 points.
And with those switches, the Mocs went nearly nine minutes without a point between the 14:38 mark of the second half and the 5:41 mark. Ahead 50-47 when the cold spell began, they trailed 61-50 before it ended. That's a 14-0 run despite UTC's defense not being awful.
That's also the last kind of performance the Mocs needed in front of the biggest crowd of the season. Win this one and interest grows. Lose this one and you have to start over from scratch with this incredibly fickle fan base.
"We appreciate the crowd support," noted Rod Johnson, who scored six points in each half and finished with 10 rebounds. "We need to learn from this and keep on going."
Learning is one thing. Overcoming a disparity in talent and experience is another. This is clearly Paris's best team to date. It has size. It has a relative amount of experience. It has some talent, especially at the offensive end. What it doesn't yet have, apparently, is the kind of physical, aggressive defender who can slow down an opponent such as Mike Bothwell, who came off the Furman bench to score 27 points in less than 25 minutes.
It's not that UTC didn't try to stop the 6-foot-3 sophomore from Ohio. It tried hard. But to no avail, especially in the final 4:03, when he scored nine points.
It was a stark reminder that despite Paris's best coaching efforts, the Mocs are far better collectively than individually. They lack both a lockdown defender and an instant-offense scorer. Impressive as their chemistry and cohesiveness was in the opening half, the absence of an elite individual player or two puts much pressure on them to be at their best every game.
"They've got some great shooters," Kenic said, succinctly sizing up the victors. "Furman's No. 1 in our league."
Having beaten conference brother East Tennessee State by nine at Furman this past weekend, the Paladins just might be one of the best mid-majors in the country. They forced No. 5 Auburn to overtime a little more than a month ago. They've beaten Loyola of Chicago and fallen by only eight at Alabama. After shooting 45% in the first half against the Mocs, they hit 58.6% in the second half.
Recalling that 8-minute, 57-second scoring drought, Paris rightly observed, "We did enough other things right that we weren't down 20. Obviously we were getting stops and getting some rebounds."
It's a fair point. In some ways, it's a powerful example of all that is improving with this program. But if this loss may ultimately pay benefits in terms of letting the Mocs know they can compete against the SoCon's best, it was also a golden opportunity lost in terms of boosting attendance and interest in the days and weeks to come.
No offense to Samford — which rolls into town on Saturday — or Wofford, which visits next week, but the next and final chance for the Mocs to excite the casual fan rather than the loyal fanatic won't arrive until Feb. 5, when ETSU comes to town.
Until then, it's best to focus on getting better one game at a time, since only winning the SoCon tourney in early March will get UTC back in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2016.
Said Kenic, undaunted by this setback: "We know we can play against them. We'll make more shots next time."
If they can also force Furman and the rest of the SoCon to miss more shots, the Mocs might not need to shoot 72% in both halves to post a program-turning win.
Contact Mark Wiedmer at firstname.lastname@example.org.