JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. – The Chattanooga men’s basketball team was given a second chance.
Instead of ending the season with a disappointing quarterfinal loss in the Southern Conference tournament, UTC was presented with the opportunity to play on.
“We got a second life,” junior forward Martynas Bareika said of the team’s Collegeinsider.com Postseason Tournament invitation. “Everybody was excited to keep playing.”
Unfortunately for the Mocs, making their first-ever CIT appearance, they came out on the losing end of Tuesday night’s “Rivalry Renewed” game against the SoCon-bound East Tennessee State Buccaneers (19-15).
“We hung in there tonight, we just couldn’t flip that momentum when we needed to,” UTC head coach Will Wade said after the 79-66 loss.
The Mocs (18-15), who trailed by as many as 13 points in the second half, had whittled their deficit down to 54-51 with under 10 minutes to play-the result of Bareika and sophomore Eric Robertson’s barrage of 3-pointers-but they never quite got over the hump.
“We didn’t make a couple of momentum-changing plays,” Wade added. “We were playing hard, we just couldn’t turn the momentum back our way enough.”
One of those opportunities-perhaps the biggest-came with just under eight minutes remaining.
After reducing the deficit to 57-51, senior Z. Mason headed to foul line for a pair of free throws. Mason, a 71 percent free-throw shooter, missed both, however, and ETSU’s Lester Wilson got loose in transition before burying a crucial 3-pointer at the other end.
“Those [free throws] would have gotten it down to four,” Wade said. “Instead of us being down four coming out of the timeout we were down nine. That was a five-point swing; a big swing for us. That was one of the momentum plays we needed.”
Chattanooga, which found itself behind by seven in the game’s opening minutes, used a 13-2 first-half run to claim its first lead of the game. The Mocs shot just 9 of 31 (29%) from the field in the first half, but a strong effort on the offensive glass kept them in it-UTC brought down nine offensive boards in the first half and 22 total.
After trading baskets with the Bucs in the middle stages of the opening period, ETSU strung together a late-first half run, claiming a 33-27 advantage at the break.
“Their zone really gave us problems,” Wade said. “They had a great gameplan and they’ve got the right personnel. We’ve struggled all year with teams that play zone and have two really good guards.”
The Buccaneers, led by junior Jalen Riley’s team-high 23 points, took charge early in the second half, claiming their first double-digit advantage, 44-34, on A.J. Merriweather’s putback with 16:19 left, and that lead increased to 13 before UTC mounted its comeback.
Riley and junior Rashawn Remberth combined for 40 points on 14 on 26 shooting for ETSU, while Merriweather (11) and teammate Kinard Gadsden-Gilliard (10) also finished in double-figures in the win.
Bareika scored a team-high 15 points for the Mocs, while Mason tallied 12 points and a career-high 15 rebounds in the losing effort.
“I enjoyed this year,” said Mason, who also added five blocked shots. “This was by far the best year I’ve had in a Chattanooga uniform. I enjoyed it. Coach Wade said we’d work hard and have fun, and that’s what we did. We broke records as a team, guys broke records individually and it just showed our hard work.
“I enjoyed playing for the Chattanooga Mocs.”
Michael Murphy covers UTC athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on twitter @MichaelNooga.