The Mocs went to the well one too many times, and on Saturday at McKenzie Arena, they came up empty.
After overcoming a 19-point deficit in the final 6:36 of Thursday’s win over Appalachian State, the team’s second come-from-behind victory in three games, Chattanooga attempted to erase another sizable second-half deficit Saturday against Western Carolina.
The Mocs, who had won six of eight heading into their clash with the Catamounts, trailed by as much as 16 early in the second half, and still faced a double-digit deficit with less than four minutes to play. Senior Dontay Hampton, playing with a broken shooting hand, knocked down a 3-pointer with 1:21 remaining to bring his team to to within four, but UTC just couldn’t come up with enough stops down the stretch.
“We keep getting off to these bad starts,” said Hampton, who started the 0-for-4 from beyond the arc. “We get going late and try to catch up, but eventually that will catch up to you. That’s what happened tonight.”
Chattanooga was forced to foul in the final minute, but couldn’t make up much ground as Western Carolina’s Trey Sumler knocked down all six of his free-throw attempts to seal the 90-81 win.
The Mocs (8-11, 3-3 Southern Conference) took a 4-3 advantage following back-to-back jumpers by freshman Farad Cobb and sophomore Ronrico White early in the first half. They surrendered the lead following a 3-pointer from Sumler just seconds later, and it was never to be seen again.
Catamounts junior Tom Tankelewicz started the game a perfect 5-for-5 from beyond the arc, knocking down his final first-half trey at the 11:29 mark, which put Western Carolina ahead 25-17.
“I’m concerned with giving up 90 points,” UTC head coach John Shulman said. “81 points should be enough to win a basketball game at home. I don’t know why we weren’t hungry. It’s really disappointing. …I’m mad, but it boils down to they made plays and we didn’t make plays. They made 3s and we missed layups. You’ve got to be more focused and ready to roll.”
Chattanooga, which trailed by as much as 10 in the opening period, tied the game at 36-36 on a 3-pointer by junior Martynas Bareika with 4:29 left, but the Catamounts closed the half on a 12-3 run and took a 48-39 advantage into the break.
“We gave some effort tonight, we just didn’t start strong,” UTC junior Z. Mason said. “We can’t always be trying to fight back from being down so much. We’ve got to stay in the game throughout, try to take a lead a couple times. I know we came back Thursday, but not every night is going to be like that. You’ve got to come out and throw the first punch.”
Sumler, who entered the game as the SoCon’s second-leading scorer (17.6 ppg), finished with a game-high 25, Tankelwicz added 21 on seven 3-pointers, while juniors Brandon Boggs (19) and Tawaski King (18) also finished in double-figures for WCU. The Catamounts shot 31 of 58 (.534) from the field and 12 of 22 (.545) from 3-point range.
“Tonight we made some shots, and honestly, that was the big difference,” Catamounts coach Larry Hunter said. “Tommy (Tankelewicz) got us off to a good start and I thought we established Tawaski King in the post. We had some inside-outside presence. We had some pretty good balance.”
Mason finished with a team-high 21 points for Chattanooga, his second straight 20-point performance, while freshman Gee McGhee tied his season best with 19 points, including six straight for the Mocs midway through the second half.
The Mocs won the rebounding battle 41-33, and their 18 offensive boards – the most since their Dec. 29 win over Utah Valley in the Dr. Pepper Classic – was a sign of team’s effort. Sometimes that’s not enough, though.
“Sometimes you have to play with more than effort; you have to use your brain on occasion,” Shulman said. “We didn’t do a great job of that.”
Sophomore Ronrico White finished collected nine points, five assists, three rebounds and two steals, while Hampton contributed nine points, six rebounds and two assists just two days after breaking his hand against the Mountaineers.
“That doesn’t surprise me at all,” Mason said. “I talked to him about it and he told me it was broken, but he doesn’t want to miss any more games than he has to. That shows the kind of warrior he is.”
The Mocs return to action Thursday when they start a three-game road swing with a trip to Elon, N.C. to face the Phoenix. They play at UNC Greensboro on Sunday.
Michael Murphy covers UTC athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @MichaelNooga.