The hype had been building all week.
University of Tennessee at Chattanooga men's basketball coach Will Wade challenged students and the community to pack McKenzie Arena with 5,000 people.
Players, coaches and the staff were more visible on campus -- in the University Center, eating lunch with students and, in Gee McGhee's case, judging a dance contest that afternoon.
Then the game started.
For all the excitement leading up, McKenzie Arena seemed rather quiet and on edge. UTC has been known to drop the ball before in situations like this.
Elon scored; UTC missed. Elon hit a 3-pointer. The Mocs turned it over, followed by an Elon turnover. Martynas Bareika lost the ball in the backcourt for another turnover. Elon hit another 3.
Less than two minutes in, the Mocs were down 8-0.
"They came out early with their run," junior guard Ronrico White said. "Coach has preached all season, 'How do we respond?' Bam -- there's adversity from the start, there's people in the stands, how are we going to respond?"
They responded like veterans, with a calmness beyond their years and like a winning team.
"Even as far back as Radford in our first game, we've not panicked," coach Will Wade said. "We've stuck in there, and once we settle in, we've been able to stem the tide.
"That's been a mark of our team most of the season."
The Mocs could have been crushed at the onset Thursday. They were playing the favored team -- by Las Vegas that night and in the preseason league polls -- and could have crumbled, which would have made all of the off-court effort go for naught.
"Part of the slow start was my fault, because I over-guarded about using emotion," Wade said. "We should have used the emotion a little more. I was worried that we'd be too high-strung and try to throw a haymaker at the beginning.
"That probably made us a little timid."
But this surprising team, with a first-year head coach, on a nine-game winning streak, with a 7-0 start in the conference, took Elon's best punch and punched back -- hard.
UTC won 84-63 and delivered the Phoenix their most lopsided SoCon loss since coach Matt Matheny's first season in 2009-10.
Along the way, sophomore McGhee sank a three-quarter-court shot at the halftime buzzer, which earned him the ESPN SportsCenter top play of the day.
And senior forward Zaccheus Mason delivered a clinic with 27 points on a variety of shots usually reserved for professionals and grabbed rebounds like men who play for pay.
"We just needed to settle in and execute what we do," Wade said.
The Mocs did it all better Thursday night than in any other game this season, just as they had done for the time being in their game last Saturday. UTC won the rebounding battle by 10, took 32 free throws, made 28 of those, had a reasonable 10 turnovers and shot 8-of-14 from the 3-point line with 13 assists on 24 field goals.
UTC's work on the court made the hype worth the efforts of all. Wade said more people than normal sent texts and emails or stuck their head into his office Friday.
"There's been a lot of hard work put into it from our players, the staff the community. A lot has gone into it," Wade said. "I know people are fired up about the program right now.
"That stuff is fleeting and can go away if you don't keep performing."
Contact David Uchiyama at email@example.com or 423-757-6484.
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 ...
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