The big news from downtown Chattanooga Wednesday afternoon came from McKenzie Arena where a college basketball game was actually played.
Yes, it was the season and home opener for the Chattanooga Mocs as they rolled past the Lander Bearcats by a 99-63 final.
Bellarmine had been Chattanooga’s original season-opening opponent, but had to cancel because of Covid-19 issues. The Bearcats had a similar experience, so it made for perfect timing for the small school from Greenwood, S.C. with 3,000-plus students to stop by Chattanooga for a little out-of-conference competition.
There’s a unique twist to this story as Omar Wattad is starting his first year as the Lander men’s coach after a successful six-year stint as an assistant at Lincoln Memorial. Closer to home, he’s also a UTC graduate in 2012 where he was a two-time All-Southern Conference performer for the Mocs after finishing his career with 820 points, 230 rebounds and 119 assists in two seasons, finishing with 168 made 3-pointers.
Those were some positive memories back in the day, but it wasn’t as much in his latest trip to Chattanooga.
“I was glad to be part of such a special game from my point of view, but it was just a good old-fashioned butt whipping for our team,” he said to begin his post-game comments.
“We still have a ways to go and I’m confident that we’ll learn from it and keep improving, but I’m a bit disappointed in the final result. Chattanooga has a fine basketball team and they made us pay dearly for the errors we made,” he added.
UTC coach Lamont Paris was just happy to be playing a real game, despite the fact there were no spectators, no cheerleaders or Sugar Mocs or pep band.
“We tried to make it as normal as possible, but there was a lot of emotion for it being our first game and to have so many new faces on our team,” Paris said afterward.
“We were able to win by a sizable margin, but I just wanted to see how we responded as so many of our guys were playing their first college game. We’ve come a long way, but we’ll just keep going from here.
“There were times when we did a good job defending the ball. I thought we moved it well and we shot pretty good, but I thought we’d be able to rebound a little better with our size advantage,” the Mocs leader added.
Josh Ayeni opened the game with back-to-back buckets while teammate Malachi Smith sank two 3s in a row as the Mocs roared to a 10-0 lead in the first two and a half minutes.
The Bearcats were clearly outmatched and outsized, but they never quit battling.
David Jean-Baptiste wrapped a couple of 3s around a layup by Mark Tikhonenko late in the first half to give Chattanooga its biggest lead in the first 20 minutes at 43-24 with 3:03 left before intermission.
The Mocs opened the second half on a 12-3 run for a 62-34 edge following a 3 by Stefan Kenic with 16:51 to play and the lead just kept getting bigger, the biggest of the game at 38 points with less than a minute to play after Trey Doomes sank a jumper from the line for a 99-61 advantage.
Marcus Thompson scored his only two points for the Bearcats some 20 seconds later to make the final difference 99-63.
Jean-Baptiste, the only returning starter for the Mocs, scored 19 points to lead the UTC offense after tallying a dozen in the first half.
Smith was next with 18 while Kenic added 11 and Ayeni 10.
Jermaine Patterson set the pace for Lander with 18 points. Zane Rankin, who hit all four of his 3-point attempts and both free throws, followed with 14 while Jared Sherfield was also in double figures with 10.
Chattanooga had a commanding 52-28 edge on the boards as Smith snagged 10 and A.J. Caldwell eight. Patterson topped the Bearcats with seven.
The Mocs will be at home again on Saturday afternoon to face Northern Kentucky with a 2 p.m. tip while Lander plays at Augusta next Wednesday in its next outing.
Lander was 23-8 a year ago while Chattanooga was 20-13.
LANDER (63) – Berrien 6, Armstrong 3, Sherfield 10, Patterson 18, Spivery 2, Moorer 6, Rankin 14, Robinson, Augustave 2, Thompson 2, Staggs.
CHATTANOOGA (99) – Ayeni 10, Kenic 11, Caldwell 9, Jean-Baptiste 19, Smith 18, Walker 6, Tikhonenko 5, Obidiebube 7, Frazier 6, Doomes 8.
3-POINT GOALS: Lander 6 of 24 for 25 percent (Berrien 0-6, Armstrong 0-1, Sherfield 1-2, Patterson 1-7, Rankin 4-4, Robinson 0-2, Augustave 0-1, Thompson 0-1); Chattanooga 13 of 27 for 48.1 percent (Ayeni 1-1, Kenic 3-3, Caldwell 1-3, Jean-Baptiste 3-8, Smith 2-3, Walker 2-3, Tikhonenko 0-1, Obidiebube 1-2, Doomes 0-3).
FREE THROWS: Lander 9 of 14 for 64.3 percent; Chattanooga 12 of 19 for 63.2 percent.
REBOUNDS: Lander 28 (Patterson 7, Sherfield 5, Armstrong 5, Rankin 4); Chattanooga 52 (Smith 10, Caldwell 8, Walker 6, Kenic 5, Doomes 5).
ASSISTS: Lander 10 (Spivery 4); Chattanooga 15 (Caldwell 5, Smith 5).
STEALS: Lander 6 (Berrien 2, Sherfield 2); Chattanooga 9 (Jean-Baptiste 2, Smith 2, Doomes 2).
BLOCKS: Lander 7 (Armstrong 2, Rankin 2); Chattanooga 2 (Kenic, Tikhonenko).
HALFTIME SCORE: Chattanooga 50-31.
(Email John Hunt at email@example.com)