The Chattanooga Mocs would not be denied. Not denied the best start in school history. Not denied the statement being the first team in the country to reach 9-0. Someone forgot to tell Tennessee State as the Mocs earned a 66-63 win in Gentry Center Tuesday afternoon.
The Tigers led 54-41 on Yusuf Mohamed’s three with 9:45 to play. The 13-point margin was the largest of the day, but in insurmountable according to Malachi Smith who was dominant with 29 points and 13 rebounds.
“We all looked at each other said we’ve been in this position before with Tennessee Tech, Asheville, Bellarmine,” he opened. “We didn’t even look at the clock and kept doing what we were doing and then the next media we’re only down four. Once we got within four, we had all the momentum, and we’re going to keep doing what we’re supposed to do.
“It’s great experience for us because any time we get in these moments, we can look back and say we’ve been here before. There’s no need to press, no need to worry, and just have each other’s backs.”
Nine quick points started with two Stefan Kenić free throws followed by a three from Jamaal Walker and then a Smith jumper and two KC Hankton free tosses slicing it to 54-50 with 7:13 left. Josh Linder put the hosts up eight, 58-50 with 6:19 on the clock, but the Mocs took the momentum right back.
Chattanooga scored on four of the next five possessions while making stop after stop defensively. Walker’s three, a huge moment from right in front of the bench was followed by Smith with a trey of his own to give his squad its first lead since early in the game, 60-58.
It went back and forth from there with TSU back ahead 61-60 as Shakem Johnson made one of two free throws at 1:23. Smith went to work. He drove hard to the basket drawing Linder’s fifth foul. Two free throws made it 62-61 for the good guys. Mark Freeman, who was a force for the Tigers, missed the front end of a 1+1 which led to another Smith basket. He added two more free throws in the final 10 seconds before the Mocs survived a Freeman three that was just off the mark to secure the win.
Kenić had 16 points and six rebounds. Walker scored all nine of his points after the break. Freeman had 20 points, five rebounds and six assists. Linder totaled 13 points, while Johnson added 11 with six boards.
The big three was no shock to the Mocs. He had the decisive points Saturday at UAB and is playing like anything but a freshman in clutch situations.
“We try to do a lot to instill confidence to whoever is on the floor,” Coach Lamont Paris shared. “If you’re on the floor, you’re out there for a reason. Know who you are, know what your game is and what your strengths are. If an opportunity presents itself, we need make a play. Secretly as it was coming to him and I saw his face, I was hoping he would shoot it.
“It was a good look, we needed something and it was in rhythm.”
The Mocs head into Southern Conference play after the holiday break. It starts with Furman in the Roundhouse on Wednesday, Dec. 30, at 1 p.m.