It was defense in the final minutes that keyed a 73-70 Southern Conference win for UTC over Mercer in McKenzie Arena on Thursday night.
Ramon Vila gave the Mocs a 71-70 lead with a free throw with 33 seconds to go. He made the first and missed the second. He made up for the miss on the Bears possession.
Ross Cummings made a strong drive to the hoop, but Vila was there.
His block and rebound by Kevin Easley led to a little scramble. Easley was finally fouled in the front court with just over 10 seconds remaining.
"I was right on the goal,” Jerry Johnson, Jr., noted about Vila’s big play. “(Ramon) did an incredible job of staying vertical all game. He did a great job and we needed that. Guards try to take advantage of the bigs when they swipe down on the ball. Through the season, he has progressed so much in staying vertical."
The freshman from Indianapolis made both ends of a one-and-one for the three-point advantage, 73-70. Mercer quickly got the ball to mid-court with 7.7 ticks on the clock.
The Bears worked it in and looked to get leading scorer Cummings open off a ball screen. The Mocs swarmed defensively keeping Cummings from getting the ball. He was 5-6 from long range to that point with a game-high 22 points.
They patiently maneuvered, but no opening was provided by the Gig City men. Djordje Dimitrijevic took a deep triple under pressure. It fell short and the Mocs claimed a hard-fought W.
“Kev (Easley) had to make two pressure free throws,” Coach Lamont Paris shared. “I can't simulate that at practice, it's impossible. Now that's two free throws when he looks back to his memory bank when the opportunity arises again, he knows he can do it because he did. He's going to at least believe he can. You don't have to talk yourself into the situation because you've done it. Those are vital experiences for this team."
Jerry Johnson, Jr., led the Mocs with 15 points. Donovann Toatley had 13 off the bench, while Easley and David Jean-Baptiste each tallied 11. Jaylen Stowe chipped in 16 for the Bears.
The triumph moves Chattanooga into a tie for fourth with Furman in the Southern Conference standings at 4-2. Wofford leads at 6-0 followed by ETSU (6-1) and UNCG (5-1). The Mocs and Paladins are followed by Samford (2-4), Western Carolina (2-5), The Citadel (1-5), Mercer (1-5) and VMI (0-6).
It was a back-and-forth game throughout. The lead in the second half was never greater than four either way, and both teams held a four-point advantage. The latter came after a Cummings three made it a 62-58 Bears lead with 7:06 to play.
Easley book-ended a Dimitrijevic layup to knot the score at 64-all at 5:39. Thomas Smallwood’s 3pt at 4:08 put the Mocs up three again, 69-66. Cummings and Marcus Cohen scored on drives giving Mercer a 70-69 margin with 2:42 left. It was the last points the Bears registered.
The Mocs complete the 3-game home stand Saturday with a visit from The Citadel. Game time is 4:30 p.m., in the second half of a doubleheader with the women’s meeting Furman at 2 p.m. Tickets are available on GoMocs.com or by calling (423) 266-MOCS (6627).
Chattanooga 9-10/4-2 | Mercer 6-12/1-5