CULLOWHEE, N.C. - The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga men's basketball team knew it was in for a tough night, traveling to Western Carolina for a matchup between the top two teams in the Southern Conference North Division. The sickly Mocs put up a heroic effort before falling on 69-68 on the road.
The Mocs (14-12, 10-4 SoCon) left Chattanooga this afternoon with three players getting on the bus carrying IV bags, trying to get fluids before the game. Chattanooga had four players under quarantine this week, suffering from the flu. Regular starters Keegan Bell (Hazel Green, Ala.) and Omar Wattad (Johnson City, Tenn.) were both on the bench for the opening tip, but all nine available players would eventually get in the game.
The Mocs started out sharp early on, jumping out to a 10-2 lead behind a pair of threes from junior Ricky Taylor (Brownsville, Tenn.) and two buckets from sophomore Dontay Hampton (Chattanooga, Tenn.). Hampton was making just his second career start for Bell. Senior Troy Cage (Baton Rouge, La.) also got the nod for the second time as a Moc, replacing Wattad.
Hampton responded, scoring six points in the first half while Cage would grab a game-high 11 boards in the game. Despite the early lead, the Mocs could not take control of the game, thanks to 15 turnovers in the opening period. Western Carolina had a tough time getting back into the game given the fact that they coughed it up 10 times in the first 15 minutes themselves.
UTC went up 25-18 with 5:53 on the clock when senior DeAntre Jefferson (Bloomington, Ind.) scored inside. That was the last field goal Chattanooga would get for the rest of the half.
WCU took the lead 27-26 two minutes later when Mike Williams put-back a missed fast-break lay-in at the 3:50 mark. The Catamounts closed the half on a 17-2 run and went into the locker room with a 35-26 lead.
Western Carolina came out on an 8-2 spurt, opening their lead to 43-29 on another Williams lay-in. The Mocs responded with a 9-2 run of their own, closing to gap to 45-38 on two Wattad free throws at 13:31.
Wattad was whistled for a technical foul heading back down the court following the foul shots. WCU responded with seven straight points to push the lead back to 14 at 52-38 at 12:33.
UTC started slowly clawing its way back into the game over the next eight minutes, cutting the lead to seven, 59-52, on a Taylor three with seven minutes left. Back-to-back baskets by Jefferson and a three by junior Jahmal Burroughs (New Orleans, La.) cut the lead to 62-59 with four minutes left.
Williams, the Catamount's leading scorer, had gone to the bench with four fouls early in the second half. He came back at the four-minute mark and immediately scored a bucket. Trailing 66-62, Burroughs scored four straight points, including a pair of clutch foul shots with one minute left to tie the game and set up a dramatic finish.
UTC had been in this situation before and had an 11-1 record in games where they score was within five points with five minutes to play. The Mocs were also 3-0 in one-point games and 5-1 in three-point contests this season.
After a pair of timeouts, Western Carolina tried to set up its offense, but the Mocs were ready. Chattanooga played excellent defense and did not allow a clear look. Catamount Trey Sumler threw up a prayer, but Hampton was whistled for a foul on the play with one second left. Sumler sank one of two to hold on for the win.
The Mocs were led by Taylor's 14 points while Jefferson added 13 and eight boards. Burroughs had 10 while Hampton had nine points, five assists and four rebounds. WCU was led by William's 22, including six of their last seven. Sumler added 15 points and eight assists.
The Mocs are right back on the court tomorrow night when they continue the road trip at Appalachian State. Game time is set for 7:00 p.m. (E.S.T.) from the Holmes Center in Boone, N.C.