Perhaps Jim Reynolds had the best comment to summarize Chattanooga’s 83-80 victory over the Mercer Bears Wednesday night at McKenzie Arena.
Reynolds, who’s been the Voice of the Mocs as long as anyone can remember, said matter of factly, “I’ve watched a lot of basketball games in my day and I’ve seen some great comebacks, but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen one quite like this one.”
And what a comeback it turned out to be.
The visitors from Macon, Ga. jumped to a 7-0 lead and were quickly ahead 21-7 in the opening eight minutes of the game when the Bears sank 77.8 percent of their shots compared to just 8.3 percent for the Mocs.
It appeared that a blowout was in the making, but those guys from Chattanooga had other ideas.
Mercer’s biggest lead of 19 points came with 2:24 to play in the first half after Ross Cummings had nailed his fifth 3 in six attempts to put his team ahead, 40-21.
The Mocs then scored the final 10 points of the half to trail by only 40-31 at intermission and the Mocs had just turned a big corner.
A 10-2 run to begin the second half got Chattanooga within a point at 42-41 following a drive down the lane from David Jean-Baptiste with 16:50 to play before Mercer responded with an 8-0 run to lead 50-41 with 14:58 remaining.
The Mocs then went on a 16-4 run and grabbed the lead for the first time at 55-54 when Malachi Smith sank a short jumper in the lane for a 55-54 lead with 10:44 to go.
Turns out that Mercer never regained the lead.
Jean-Baptiste sank two free throws with 7:39 left to give Chattanooga its biggest lead at 66-58, but this game was a long way from over as Mercer simply never gave up.
Smith had a key steal and layup to give the Mocs a seemingly-comfortable 81-75 lead with 22 seconds left, but Neftali Alvarez converted a layup and Felipe Haase three free throws with 12 ticks to make it a one-point game at 81-80.
Darius Banks, a senior transfer player from James Madison, saw his first action for the Mocs and played almost 36 minutes, but it was his two free throws with 8.7 seconds remaining that ultimately sealed the deal, giving Chattanooga an 83-80 lead.
The Bears moved downcourt in a hurry, but a potential tying 3 by Cummings from the key bounced harmlessly off the rim as the final horn sounded.
UTC coach Lamont Paris could only smile when sitting down for his post-game comments with Reynolds.
“I thought we were very successful at digging a big hole in the first half as we got off to a really slow start, but these guys really believe in themselves, especially on the offensive end. They knew if we could get some stops, we could come back and win this game,” Paris said.
“I thought it was critical that we had the run at the end of the half to cut it to nine, but we did what we had to do defensively and those key stops allowed us to come back and win.
“Once we got the lead, we didn’t want to look back, but those last two free throws by Darius Banks were huge. He hadn’t played at all until tonight, but it took some intestinal fortitude to make them as he never flinched.
“But I couldn’t be any more proud of these guys as they just kept battling and never quit,” Paris added.
It was appropriate that senior Stefan Kenic was the leading scorer for the Mocs with 27 points, allowing him to surpass 1,000 points for his career. He needed 17, but finished with 27 as four UTC players scored in double figures.
“We just had to keep playing and we never gave up,” he said when asked about that huge 19-point deficit in the first half.
“We just had to start making some shots and that’s what we did, but there are times when that ball just doesn’t want to go in,” the 6-9 standout from Serbia smiled.
Mercer coach Greg Gary could only shake his head at the results following the game.
“I thought we played a great first half, just like we did at Furman, but we just self-destructed in the second half,” he told the Mercer radio guy shortly after the game ended.
“You would think that 80 points is enough to win this game, but we’re just not consistent enough on defense and that’s what killed us tonight. Chattanooga was able to get to the rim in the second half as they just took it to us.
“The Kenic guy must have had a career night as he basically did whatever he wanted and we have to give more help to Ross Cummings. But we’ll keep working and hopefully get the kinks worked out,” he concluded.
While Kenic had 27 points to lead the winning Mocs, Jean-Baptiste maintained his average with 20. Smith added 14 and Banks 10 as the Mocs improved to 11-3 overall and 2-3 in conference play.
Cummings, who had 19 points in the first half for the Bears, only got three more in the final 20 minutes to lead his team with 22 points. Haase was next with 15 while Leon Ayers had 13. Jeff Gary and Alvarez both chipped in with 10.
The Mocs were 8 of 31 from the field in the first half for a cool 25.8 percent, but equally as hot in the second by making 20 of 28 for 71.4 percent to finish at 47.5 percent for the game. Mercer was 15 of 27 in the first half for 55.6 percent, but a bit cooler in the second at 16 for 36 for 44.4 percent and 49.2 percent for the game.
Mercer won the rebound battle by a 37-28 margin, including 10 on the offensive end, as Haase snagged nine. Kenic, Jean-Baptiste and Smith all had seven for Chattanooga.
The Mocs will be at home again on Saturday to face Wofford while Mercer will host Western Carolina Saturday afternoon.
MERCER (80) – Haase 15, Bender 8, Alvarez 10, Gary 10, Cummings 22, Ayers 13, Greco, Tucker 2, Rivera, Urey.
CHATTANOOGA (83) – Ayeni 6, Kenic 27, Jean-Baptiste 20, Banks 10, Smith 14, Caldwell 2, Walker 4.
FIELD GOALS: Mercer 31 of 63 for 49.2 percent; Chattanooga 28 of 59 for 47.5 percent.
FREE THROWS: Mercer 8 of 9 for 88.9 percent; Chattanooga 20 of 22 for 90.9 percent.
3-POINT GOALS: Mercer 10 of 32 for 31.3 percent (Haase 2-10, Alvarez 0-2, Gary 2-5, Cummings 6-12, Ayers 0-1, Greco 0-1, Rivera 0-1; Chattanooga 7 of 16 for 43.8 percent (Kenic 4-5, Jean-Baptiste 2-5, Banks 0-2, Smith 1-3, Walker 0-1.
REBOUNDS: Mercer 37 (Haase 9, Ayers 6); Chattanooga 28 (Kenic 7, Jean-Baptiste 7, Smith 7).
ASSISTS: Mercer 17 (Alvarez 3, six players with two each); Chattanooga 12 (Jean-Baptiste 4, Smith 3, Caldwell 3).
TURNOVERS: Mercer 14 (Haase 3, Cummings 3); Chattanooga 7 (Smith 3, Banks 2).
STEALS: Mercer 3 (Alvarez, Gary, Ayers); Chattanooga 8 (Jean-Baptiste 2, Banks 2).
BLOCKS: Mercer 3 (Bender 2); Chattanooga none.
HALFTIME SCORE: Mercer, 40-31.
(Email John Hunt at firstname.lastname@example.org)