UTC Men’s Basketball Falls in 54-53 Heartbreaker to Illinois in First Round of the NCAA Tournament

The 13th-seeded Chattanooga Mocs men’s basketball team dropped a heartbreaking 54-53 decision to fourth-seeded Illinois in the First Round of the NCAA Tournament inside PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on Friday evening.

Following the loss, Chattanooga is eliminated from the NCAA Tournament and finishes the season 27-8 overall. Illinois advances to the Second Round and improves to 23-9. The loss marked the first for the Mocs to the Illini in three tries.

Chattanooga grabbed an early lead and held it for over 38-and-a-half minutes during the contest before Illinois’ Kofi Cockburn converted on a put-back with 45 seconds left to put the team in orange up 52-51. Malachi Smith saw a potential game-winning shot at the buzzer hit off the back iron before the final buzzer sounded.

“So tough, tough way to go out, obviously. The last game is always going to be a hard one. But under those circumstances, I think it was — I think it was even tougher for our older guys and just for our group together, tight-knit group,” said head coach Lamont Paris.

“I’ve done this 26 years. This is my favorite group, maybe it’s not that close, but this is a great group.”

Chattanooga raced out with an early 12-3 lead at the first media timeout (15:39) after Josh Ayeni and KC Hankton connected on threes while the team started five-of-nine from the field. The Mocs continued to lead, 16-6, before trading baskets to hold a 20-10 lead at the 7:45 mark of the first half.

After UTC went ahead 27-16, Illinois responded with a 9-0 run to pull within two, 27-25, before the Mocs finished the half with six of the final 10 points to take a 33-29 lead at the break. Chattanooga went 13-of-35 (37.1%) from the floor in the opening 20 while the Illini posted a 43.5% (10-of-23) mark including an 0-of-5 (0.0%) tally from deep.

The Mocs opened the second half on a 7-0 run to build a 40-29 lead before the Illini answered with a 10-0 run itself to pull within one, 40-39 (11:24). UTC stretched it back out to five, 48-43, on an Avery Diggs second chance layup with 7:28 remaining in the contest.

After the Illini got within two, Grant Ledford knocked down a crucial three with 4:34 on the board to make it 51-46 and forcing a timeout from the home bench. Six-straight Illinois points gave them their first lead of the game, 52-51, with just 45 seconds left.

Smith came back to the offensive end and drew a shooting foul with 32 ticks left before knocking down both freebies to put UTC back in front, 53-52. The Illini converted two free throws on the other end after Alfonso Plummer drew contact to switch the lead again, 54-53 with 12 seconds. Smith’s potential game-winner did not fall as Illinois secured its berth into the Second Round.