published Wednesday, December 14th, 2011

Wiedmer: Mocs relieve stress before going to Rupp

Even with a 47-point lead and less than three minutes to play, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga basketball coach John Shulman found it difficult to relax Tuesday night.

Losing seven of your first nine games at a tradition-rich program such as UTC can do that to a guy.

So with 2:54 on the clock, Shulman got a technical foul. And Division III member Spalding crept within 46 by making one of its two free throws.

Fortunately for the short-term mental health of both Shulman and his team, the Mocs held on to win by 50 -- 98-48.

Perhaps it's cruel and unusual punishment to remind them that come Saturday night inside Rupp Arena, they're going from Division III to No. 3 when they visit the Kentucky Wildcats.

"There's been a lot of stress," Shulman said. "Our kids are a little like me, which isn't good. They want to please everybody. They know we were picked to win the SoCon, and we're 3-and-7. So right now they feel like they've let everybody down."

Despite an official attendance of 2,155, McKenzie Arena literally echoed with that belief against the Golden Eagles. An unofficial head count completed with seven minutes remaining in the opening half totaled 748 bodies in the building, including players, officials and concession workers.

That number was never much improved upon by fashionably late arrivals, since those few souls bumped into those leaving early. It's almost as if the fan base has skipped apathetic and moved directly to absent, which is never a good thing.

And given the record and the opponent, you couldn't really blame them except for the presence of the coach on the other bench -- former UTC star Kevin Gray, who managed to endure this bludgeoning without a technical.

"It was wonderful to be back," he said. "I never felt like I was the visiting team, just a different team."

But can the Mocs look like a different team against somebody their own size and skill level? Just how much did this mismatch help? And just how much stress have the players felt during the recent four-game losing streak?

"Some players have definitely felt the stress," said point guard Keegan Bell, whose eight assists leave him two behind Tim Brooks' and Wes Moore's 414 each for most in the Divison I era. "No matter what anybody says, you feel the pressure. John's our coach. A lot of us are here because we want to play for him. You want to win for him."

Yet Bell was also a member of a Vanderbilt team that won in Lexington, Ky., during his freshman season with the Commodores. He knows you can't enter Rupp feeling tight and have any chance against the lordly royal blue of UK.

"You see Kentucky on the schedule at the start of the year and you get excited," Bell said. "You have that game circled. At the same time, you've got to stay focused on what you do. You've just got to play your game. You've got to relax and let it go out there. Just have fun."

Bell and Shulman both said that was the biggest benefit to playing poor little Spalding.

"It was important for us to get better," Bell said. "Now we have to believe we can do something special."

Added Shulman: "We've been in a funk all year. There haven't been a lot of fun moments. I didn't care if it was [Shulman's sons] Max, Tanner and J.C. out there, we needed to have success."

To that end, he unashamedly pressed Spalding in the opening half to open a 48-17 cushion at the break.

"We were up four points with 12 seconds to go at Charleston [and lost]," Shulman said. "You're trying to win the game (cue the Herm Edwards video). I didn't want to let them have a belief they could win the game."

It is doubtful that amount of belief or any lack of stress can produce a win inside Rupp, but that was never expected. What is expected is a serious run at a Southern Conference championship, which remains in reach once the calendar rolls from December to January.

But don't take Shulman's or Bell's word for it. Instead listen to Gray, whose team also has lost to Coastal Carolina, which has beaten both Clemson and LSU this season.

"I thought UTC's guards were actually better than Coastal Carolina's," Gray said. "If they play like they did tonight, they'll get an opportunity to be a pretty good basketball team."


about Mark Wiedmer...

Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...

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