Chris Mims' simple play propelled the 1997 Mocs men's basketball squad to the NCAA Sweet 16
Memorable Mocs is a summer GoMocs.com series on Chattanooga men's basketball student-athletes and teams that left an indelible mark on the program.
Vol. 1: Mindaugas Katelynas
The 1996-97 season was one of promise for the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga men's basketball team. Coming off a 15-12 finish in 1996 and second place in the Southern Conference South Division, the Mocs were looking to return to the form that captured five straight SoCon championships and three trips to the NCAA tournament. That potential did not disappoint.
Chattanooga's sweet season was defined by a single play. A simple play by Chris Mims - one that seldom ignites such a sweet spark - but as in most things, timing is everything. But let's start at the beginning and what led to the memorable Mocs moment.
Entering the conference tournament at 19-10, UTC was the top seed from the SoCon South with an 11-3 league record. The Mocs headed to Greensboro, N.C., for the tourney with bitter rival Marshall holding the top spot from the North with a 10-4 league mark gaining that division's top seed in a tiebreaker with Davidson.
The tournament quarterfinals featured four runaways as UTC opened the proceedings with a 22-point win over VMI, 84-62. Davidson matched that total, 83-61 over The Citadel, followed by Marshall's 32-point win over Georgia Southern, 78-46. Appalachian State ended the day in the closest affair winning by 19 over Western Carolina, 87-68.
The semifinals, predictably, were much closer. The Mocs dispatched Davidson, 77-70, while Marshall topped App State 84-78 that set up just the second finals meeting between the two schools despite the duo winning 10 of the last 16 tournament titles.
The hype did not disappoint. UTC jumped out early leading by as many as seven, 19-12 at 11:37, before the Thundering Herd battled back. Down four, 24-20, Marshall went on a 13-2 run over the next 5:21 to go up by seven, 33-26, before settling for a 33-30 halftime advantage.
It was another quick start to open the second half for Chattanooga. The Mocs out-scored Marshall 23-10 to go up 53-43 with 12:29 left on two Isaac Conner free throws.
From there, the Thundering Herd whittled away at the lead. Marshall eventually tied the game, 62-62, on a three-pointer by Keith Veney at 1:55. Two Veney free throws gave Marshall its first lead in almost 15 minutes with 37 seconds left.
Mims, who played a huge role in the game, made a layup on a nice feed by Willie Young, to tie the game with 21 seconds left. The Chattanooga defense held in the final possession and the game went to overtime.
Marshall jumped out by four, 68-64, to open the extra frame on a jumper by Veney and two Von Dale Morton free throws at 3:16. Veney carried the Herd with a game-high 27 points playing all 45 minutes.
The Mocs answered quickly. Mims made two free throws followed by a Young three-pointer to put UTC up 69-68 with 2:26 left. Sidney Coles put the Herd back in front 70-69 with 1:50 left as both teams played stingy defense.
As time wound down, Mocs star and consensus SoCon Player of the Year Johnny Taylor had the ball. He pulled up with six seconds to play from 15 feet. The shot was off the mark and fell into the waiting hands of Mims. His put-back layup with just four ticks left gave Chattanooga its eighth SoCon tournament title.
Yes, it was a Sweet 16 season that almost wasn't. There are several memories of the wins over Georgia and Illinois. UTC fans still talk about the motivation the team got from Illinois celebrating its easy walk into the Elite 8 only to have those dreams turn into a Mocs Madness nightmare.
Reports of an Illini celebration prior to its second round matchup with UTC are legendary. While the Mocs were in their pre-game locker room meeting, Illinois' erupted so loudly that their chants and songs reverberated into Chattanooga's space. This emotional explosion came at the knowledge that Providence had knocked off top-seed Duke.
McCarthy said at the time, "I'd never heard anything like it. They were singing the CBS song, the ESPN song, the Illinois fight song. It sounded like a pep rally in there."
But it would be all for naught had Mims not made the play of his lifetime. A simple play really. Block out, get the rebound and lay it in. The simple plays are often where championships are won.
To pin it all down on one player is not fair as it was a total team effort to win the championship and get within a few points of the NCAA Elite Eight. Five Mocs finished in double digits in the SoCon final as Mims and Young shared team-high honors with 16 apiece. Mims added 10 rebounds, seven on the offensive boards. Taylor chipped in 14 points and seven rebounds playing the final 25 minutes of the game.
Marquis Collier came off the bench to post 12 points and six boards, as UTC held a 33-27 advantage on the glass. Conner had 10 points and six rebounds of his own.
Mims scored 556 points and grabbed 412 rebounds in his two-year career transferring from Bevill Community College (Alabama). That breaks down to an average of 9.0 points and 6.6 rebounds per game while shooting a sterling 64.2 percent from the field. In the SoCon Tourney, he averaged 15 points and eight rebounds shooting 69.6 percent from the field.
How clutch was he? The career 64 percent free throw shooter not only hit both his overtime tosses from the charity stripe against Marshall, but in tournament pressure, he shot 72.2 percent (13-18) from the line.
His numbers are not eye-popping or record-setting, but he will always be remembered in the hearts of Mocs fans for his vital contribution to taking the team to the Sweet 16. He had a workman-like nine points and six boards in the opening round win over Georgia before a powerful double-double of 12 points and 12 rebounds in the Sweet 16-clincher over Illinois. He closed his career with 15 points and nine rebounds in the loss to Providence.
Chattanooga ended its season battling to the end against the Friars falling by just six points, 71-65, in Birmingham, Ala. The Mocs went 24-11 that season. The 24 wins tied for the fourth highest total ever for the program. The final three wins all fall upon a student-athlete making the simple play. As with the rest of life, the little things often provide the brightest sparks.