For 18 minutes, it looked like a long night in the Roundhouse for the Chattanooga Mocs. Stefan Kenić scored a career-high 27 points to lead his squad to an 83-80 triumph over Mercer after trailing the Bears by 19 with 2:25 left in the first half. That ties the largest comeback in school history.
“I feel like if nothing else, these guys really believe in their ability to stay the course and keep chopping wood,” Coach Lamont Paris smiled after the game. “That’s first and foremost based on their ability to score points. They will never lose confidence that they’ll be able to make something happen if we put some stops together. Most teams have 15, 16 guys at their disposable, and I think it says a lot about our group playing with this few. We have guys playing different positions, guys playing more minutes probably than what they are ready to play on a consistent basis.
“They’re a stubborn group in the best way. They’re a coachable group. It was a really resilient effort tonight.”
It started with frigid shooting for the home and inspired play from a Mercer squad taking the court for the first time in 11 days. Ross Cummings’ three made it a 40-21 advantage and seemingly out of reach to everyone but the Mocs bench. Malachi Smith jump-started a 10-0 run to the break with a three.
He added two free throws before the key play(s) occurred. David Jean-Baptiste followed a defensive stop with a floater in the lane with 34 seconds left in the half. A.J. Caldwell made a sneaky steal and quick layup off the inbounds pass cutting the lead to 10 before the Mocs went into halftime down nine, 40-31.
Chattanooga kept coming with a Kenić and Jean-Baptiste triples. The lead was sliced to one, 42-41, at 16:51 when Mercer clawed back. Eight straight capped by Cummings’ sixth three steadied the Bears at 50-41. The combatants traded baskets for a 52-43 deficit when lightning struck again.
The Mocs scored seven straight times in the paint with Jamaal Walker’s strong take at 10:09 putting the bow on a 14-2 spurt. Walker’s short jumper followed Smith’s similar score which gave the Mocs the lead for good just 35 seconds earlier.
The advantage swelled to eight three times, but the Bears would not go away. It was a six-point lead headed into the final 20 seconds on a Jean-Baptiste steal at midcourt and reverse layup. Neftali Alvarez responded quickly with a layup with 14.8 remaining.
A turnover and foul on three-point shooter Felipe Haase saw the lead dwindle to one, 81-80, when the big Chilean drained all three free throws. A quick inbounds to Kenić who kept the ball moving to Darius Banks bled nearly four seconds. Banks hit two free throws for the 83-80 lead. Cummings got a look from three but was off the mark. An offensive rebound and heave at the buzzer by Leon Ayers was awry as well.
Kenić led all scorers with his 27. Jean-Baptiste added 20 with 14 from Smith and another 10 by Banks in his debut. Cummings totaled 22 with Haase adding 15 points and a game-high nine rebounds.
“I think it’s an amazing win because we were down 19 and to be able to come back and win, it means you didn’t give up,” Kenić added. “That’s exactly what happened. We looked at the score and said to keep playing. We went to the locker room and had a talk with the coaches, and we came out and showed what we can do. That’s why I’m always proud of these guys. We never give up, and we won the game.”
The previous 19-point comeback was on the road at Mississippi State on Dec. 17, 1985. Down, 23-4 with seven minutes to go…yep just four points in 13 minutes…the Mocs closed the half on a 15-2 run to make it manageable at the break. 25-19. Manage they did. Darryl Ivery’s free throws with 1:15 provided the final, 48-47, as Chattanooga played shutdown defense for the win.
Chattanooga stays on the home court this weekend. Wofford visits Saturday afternoon with a 2 p.m., matchup on ESPN+ and over the airwaves in Chattanooga via WFLI 97.7 FM and 1070 AM.