The free fall of Chattanooga’s basketball season has come down to this: Even The Citadel couldn’t help reverse the Mocs’ fortunes.
If there’s one opponent on UTC’s schedule that, year after year, has provided something close to a guaranteed win, it’s been the Bulldogs. The two teams have been playing off and on since 1925, and Chattanooga has racked up a 54-15 record. Those 54 wins are the second most by the Mocs over any opponent in their history.
On Saturday night, The Citadel came to Chattanooga seemingly particularly vulnerable, having lost 11 games in a row. The Bulldogs were 4-22 overall and in last place in the SoCon’s South Division with a 1-14 record. They owned just two wins over Division I teams, and their RPI of 336 was only eight spots from the bottom. Their record against Chattanooga in coach John Shulman’s eight seasons: 1-8.
All that seemed to add up to a formula that could put an end to the Mocs’ own SoCon struggles that had seen them lose nine of 10 games since Jan. 14, but it wasn’t to be.
Chattanooga lost, 48-46.
The series of events in the last 13.9 seconds of the game weren’t the reason the Mocs’ lost, but they were a microcosm of a season that has gone sour for a team that had been predicted to win the SoCon North Division.
UTC had a chance for a final shot when The Citadel’s Mike Groselle, whose put back with 59 seconds to play gave his team a 48-46 lead, lost the ball out of bounds. The Mocs’ plan was for Drazen Zlovaric to set a flat screen for point guard Keegan Bell at the top of the key.
“Keegan had the choice of either (Dontay Hampton) or Ricky (Taylor) on either wing,” Shulman said. “I had no problem shooting the three. The last thing Ricky said to me was, ‘do you want me shooting the three or driving it?’ I said go win the thing.”
“We thought they might run a high screen, which has given us problems, a little flat high screen,” Citadel coach Chuck Driesell said. “So we were in a man-to-man defense, and we were going to switch everything except that screen. It looked like they were getting ready to (set the screen), and then (Bell) pulled it. He took the shot from deep.”
Bell’s 3-pointer went in and came back out, but Hampton grabbed the rebound and passed back to Bell, who was on the right wing with two seconds left. He took another three that fell short as time expired.
“They ended up doubling me,” Bell said. “I was supposed to come off the other way and I was going to attack. Tay and Ricky were in the corners. I was just going to go make a play. When I came up, they were so far off were Draz’s screen was, I just pulled up. It felt good. I don’t know how it didn’t go in.”
Undaunted by the miss, Bell tried again.
“Tay made a great rebound,” Bell said. “We were just scrambling and he made a great pass over to me. I looked up at the clock and there was two seconds. Again, that one felt good. We had two attempts. Unfortunately, they didn’t go in.”
The Mocs have struggled to make shots as their record slips dangerously close to a dubious distinction. Saturday night’s loss dropped them to 4-12 in the SoCon and 10-19 overall. Chattanooga has never lost 20 games in its long and mostly prosperous basketball history.
“So scared,” said Shulman, describing his team after it shot 32.1 percent from the field, 14.3 percent (3 of 21) from 3-point distance and 56.3 percent from the free-throw line. . “We’ve got good shooters. They can’t even think about making a shot.”
The Mocs’ big three of Bell (2 of 8 from the field, 0 of 5 on 3-point attempts), Omar Wattad (0 of 11, 0 of 8) and Taylor (1 of 8, 1 of 4), struggled mightily all night as the scrappy Bulldogs did their best to push them outside their comfort zones. A lot of deep 3s got cranked up on this night.
Still, Chattanooga had its chance to close out the Bulldogs, who went six straight possessions without scoring in the second half, allowing the Mocs, who trailed most of the game, to take a 43-36 lead on Hampton’s 3-pointer with 5:51 to play.
The Citadel, which had scored only three points in a near 10-minute stretch, took a timeout to get regrouped and struck back quickly with inside baskets by C.J. Bray and Groselle. Then, after Groselle blocked a shot by Hampton, the Bulldogs tied the score at 43 on Lawrence Miller’s 3-pointer with 4:18 to play.
Another Miller 3-pointer gave The Citadel a 46-44 lead with 1:58 left, and Groselle’s basket provided the winning margin. Though double-teamed most of the night, Groselle was still a factor with eight points, 15 rebounds and two blocked shots. Miller, seventh in the SoCon in 3-point percentage coming into the game, led all scorers with 15 points.
Hampton led UTC with 12 points and Zlovaric added 11, but no other Moc reached double figures.
“We’re gonna stay positive,” said Shulman, whose team has managed just seven wins all season over Division I teams, and just one since Jan. 12. “We’re not pointing fingers. We’ll keep on battling and see what happens. If we were getting beat by 35 points a night, I’d be concerned. But we’re not. We’ve still got a prayer.”