Chattanooga coach John Shulman noticed as some of the fans filed out of McKenzie Arena late in the second half of Thursday’s game against Appalachian State.
Who could blame them?
The Mocs (8-10, 3-2 Southern Conference) trailed 64-45 with 6:36 remaining in regulation, and the team appeared heading for its second straight lopsided loss. As ASU head coach Jason Capel stated after the game, the Mountaineers (7-9, 3-2) had dominated the first 34 minutes of play.
For a moment, even Shulman thought of packng it in.
“I was ready for ‘what are you going to tell your team, you’ve got to get them back ready for Saturday (against Western Carolina),” he said.
Then something happened, which nobody could quite put their finger on.
“Z looked at me and just gave me a stair,” Chattanooga’s Dontay Hampton said. “It was just like a stair like come on, you’ve got to have something left in the tank.”
The Mocs shot 11 of 17 from the field in the closing minutes of regulation – 3 of 7 from beyond the arc – and scored on their final 13 possessions.
“We did everything we worked on, everything we did to prepare we executed it to a T,” Capel said. “That’s what got us the lead. Up 19 with six and a half left to go, it’s about executing, meeting passes, wanting the basketball and having a killer instinct to put them away. If we do those things we’re not feeling the way we feel right now.”
Hampton, in just his third game back from injury, just about made up for his 15-game absence with the 6-1 point guard’s play in the final 16 minutes of action. He put the team on his back down the stretch, leading a Chattanooga charge that erased the team’s 19-point deficit and ultimately secured a 91-88 overtime victory.
“It just seemed like we couldn’t get that play to get everyone going, but once that play happened, it just clicked,” Chattanooga’s Ronrico White said. “We didn’t give up tonight.”
White, one of four Mocs to score in double-figures, finished with 17, while the 6-3 sophomore knocked down 9 of 10 from the free-throw line – a perfect 6-for-6 in overtime.
Mason, who led all scorers with 23 points, brought down a game-high 11 rebounds, eight offensive, and the 6-5 forward added two crucial second-chance buckets during the Mocs’ furious comeback.
The biggest hero had to be Hampton, though.
“When we cut it to 14, I said ‘If I get it my hands on it, I’m going to make it,” said Hampton, who finished with a career-high 22 points.
Hampton knocked down a three-pointer with 4:48 left in regulation, trimming UTC’s deficit to single digits for the first time since the 16-minute mark of the second half. He buried another trey from even deeper with 16.9 seconds left to tie the game at 78-78 and force overtime.
The fifth-year senior added his final 3-pointer with 3:27 left in overtime to give the Mocs their first lead of the game at 83-82.
“This is what ‘Tay has always wanted,” Shulman said. “He didn’t want a pro career. He wanted to be the point guard at Chattanooga. People in Chattanooga need to respect that because he loves this city, he loves this area.”
The Mocs held a four-point advantage with less than 20 seconds remaining before Appalachian State’s Nathan Healy buried a trey with 14 seconds left, and the 6-7 senior had a shot to tie in the final seconds, but couldn’t connect.
“I appreciate all the fans that did stay,” Shulman said. “They watched a good one. We had a home court advantage at the end of the game, and it felt real good to have one.”
Michael Murphy covers UTC athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @MichaelNooga.