CULLOWHEE, N.C. — University of Tennessee at Chattanooga fans just might enjoy the Southern Conference basketball tournament a little more.
It's set so they don't have to miss a minute of the Mocs.
The UTC women's team locked up the top seed long ago and will play its first two games at noon.
The men will play at night. They defeated Western Carolina 83-81 in overtime on Thursday in a thrilling battle for a night slot -- either the second or third seed -- beginning next Saturday in Asheville.
UTC (17-13, 11-4) owns the tiebreaker over both Elon and Wofford, the other 11-4 SoCon teams, and WCU, which dropped to 10-5 in the league.
"It was a great road win," Mocs coach Will Wade said. "We got back to doing what we were doing during our [10-game] winning streak. We we're gutting these out on that winning streak. Our guys made plays.
"We needed to get our edge back. This can help us."
Sophomore Casey Jones led four UTC players with 19 points. Senior Zaccheus Mason, who will be celebrated on Saturday prior to UTC's game against Appalachian State, had 16 points and seven rebounds. Gee McGhee added 15 points and made a huge defensive play in overtime. Ronrico White scored 13 points.
"We had a bye regardless," Jones said. "It doesn't matter who you play in the tournament, it's going to be a fight. Seeding is not big after you get a bye. It's about momentum."
UTC took away the Catamounts' momentum from their pregame ceremony for five seniors by tying the game with 8.1 seconds left in regulation on a 3-pointer by Martynas Bareika. They stole the win by forcing a jump-ball in overtime and having Jones hit a baseline jumper for the lead.
Both big buckets -- Bareika's 3 that made it 70-70 and Jones' bucket -- came on plays called from the bench.
"There was a lot of big plays, close plays," Wade said. "We made our share and they made their share."
Brandon Boggs led WCU with 22 points, while James Sinclair added 19 and Trey Sumler scored 15.
"This game meant a lot," said Bareika, who curled around White as the latter drove the left side and then flipped back to the Lithuanian on the win. "We had to battle through, get a couple stops and get back in the game."
UTC burst out to a 19-8 lead by scoring on eight of its first 11 possessions. But WCU rallied to take a 25-22 lead on a 3-pointer by Tom Tankelewicz. The teams were tied three times and there were four lead changes in the first half.
The Mocs scored seven straight points by having Jones and McGhee grab the rebound and go coast-to-coast.
White hit about a 28-foot 3-pointer on UTC's final possession of the half. That and a stop gave the Mocs a 38-36 edge.
"We were ready to go after everything," Jones said. "Tonight, we wanted it more than we have ever wanted it this year."
WCU built a nine-point lead with 14:21 to go in regulation. UTC rallied to tie it at 60 on a post move by Mason, who later gave UTC a five-point lead with less than five minutes to play. But WCU went up by one on a dunk by Kenneth Hall, and Boggs hit two free throws to give the Cats a 70-67 lead.
Then Bareika buried his 3.
UTC scored on four of its final five possessions of overtime, including 3s from Mason and White, Jones' jumper and a free throw from White.
Tankelewicz hoisted a desperation 3-pointer at the buzzer. It never threatened the rim.
"It's hard to come in and take somebody's will on senior day," Wade said. "I knew we were ready all week."
Contact David Uchiyama at email@example.com or 423-757-6484. Follow him at twitter.com/UchiyamaCTFP
David Uchiyama is a sports writer at the Chattanooga Times Free Press who began his tenure here in May 2001. His primary beats are UTC athletics — specifically men’s basketball and athletic department administration — and golf, which includes coverage from the PGA Tour to youth events. He also covers other high school sports, outdoor adventures, and contributes to other sections of the newspaper when necessary. David grew up in Salinas, Calif., and began working ...