he old saying “it’s not how you start but how you finish” is alive and well in Chattanooga, Tennessee. The Chattanooga Mocs came back from a 12-point deficit to send the game into overtime defeating Western Carolina 89-81 in McKenzie Arena.
That all happened in the final 3:23 when the Mocs hopes looked dire. In the end, they moved with one game of first place in the Southern Conference standings.
Momentum looked to be firmly in the Mocs favor midway through the second half taking a 63-61 lead on an A.J. Caldwell three. Western Carolina responded with a 10-0 run and built what seemed to be an insurmountable lead of 75-63 with 4:09 to play.
It was all Mocs from there. Stefan Kenić started it with a three, one of seven in the contest for him scoring a career-high 29 points. David Jean-Baptiste added a step-back jumper just beyond the foul line before two Malachi Smith free throws closed the gap to 75-70 with 1:45 left. Defensively, a pressing attack to speed up possessions led to a couple of turnovers to flip the switch.
A missed three by Matt Halvorsen, what seemed like an unusual occurrence on the night as he drilled five total, led to a David Jean-Baptiste triple and a two-point game with 1:09 on the clock. Another defensive stop led to a strong Smith drive and tie score as a lot of time remained, 17.0 seconds.
The Catamounts called timeout with 8.9 remaining. The ball got inside to Xavier Cork. KC Hankton blocked and rebounded the miss to send the game into overtime.
“[Pressing] was the catalyst, but I think it was once they saw a result,” Coach Lamont Paris shared. “And then another result, and another result and then the team that goes into overtime with momentum on their side is the team that just has some sort of slight advantage when you go to that final five minutes. I felt really good once it got into overtime.”
Western jumped out to an 81-77 advantage with 2:38 left after Cory Hightower floater and two Halvorsen free tosses. It was all Mocs from there. Back-to-back threes from Kenić and Hankton gave the good guys the start of a 12-0 spurt to the finish scoring on the final five possessions.
Kenić’s career-high 29 was supported by Smith’s line of 20 points, seven rebounds, three assists and four steals. Jena-Baptiste and Darius Banks both scored 12. Hankton collected 12 board. Hightower’s 19 paced Western with Halvorsen adding 17. Cork tallied 14 points and 12 rebounds.
“It’s amazing,” Kenić explained. “We were down 12 with 3:33 to go, and the energy we showed at the end of the game and the energy the fans gave us was important in the determination to get some stops and go on a 12-0 run. I’m so proud of these guys. Basketball is a 40-minute game, you better play all 40 until it’s over.
“That’s what we did tonight and I’m proud of that.”
The Mocs head back to the road for games Saturday at UNC Greensboro and next Wednesday at Mercer. Games air on ESPN+ or over the airwaves in Chattanooga via WFLI 97.7 FM and 1070 AM.