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Chattanooga keeps finding a way to get it done

Despite second-half deficits in every game they’ve played against a D-I opponent, the Mocs are 9-0.

NCAA Basketball: Chattanooga at Virginia Tech Michael Shroyer-USA TODAY Sports

NASHVILLE — For at least a few hours, Chattanooga had the best record in the nation. Until Drake knocked off North Dakota on Tuesday night, the Mocs were the only 9-0 team in Division I, now with back-to-back road wins over KenPom top-100 UAB and in-state rival Tennessee State.

Despite its record, Chattanooga certainly isn’t dominant. The Mocs aren’t even particularly great at any one aspect of the game. But, as the cliche goes, they know how to make winning plays. They don’t fold under pressure and usually make the right decision.

“From a basketball performance, we did not perform in a way that you’re going to win very often as far as basketball is concerned,” head coach Lamont Paris said after Chattanooga barely survived a 66-63 test against the Tigers. “But we did perform as winners. We made some tough plays, got some stops when we needed to, and had a couple good active big guys in there. We did what we needed to do.”

For a team that has trailed in the second half of every game it has played against a Division I opponent this season, it has a sort of steely resolve that’s usually attributed to veteran-heavy lineups. But this Chattanooga roster is full of transfers and underclassmen. Of the Mocs’ eight (healthy)-man rotation, none are home-grown seniors. Senior David Jean-Baptiste, the team’s leading scorer through the team’s first five games, stunningly entered the transfer portal earlier this month. What Paris has done in leading this team to the best start in program history is one of the best coaching jobs in the country in 2020.

“There’s a level of toughness, not only physical toughness, but the mental fortitude to be able to execute, to not only believe in yourself but in one another, and to what we draw up,” Paris said. “That kind of toughness is what it takes to be real, real winners. [The Tennessee State game] was a good example of that. I hope we don’t get in that situation a lot, but for these guys to do what they did, it took a lot of mental toughness.”

A huge reason for that success has been Malachi Smith. Smith is the Mocs’ leader in points (17.1), rebounds (11.2), assists (3.7), and steals (1.6) per game, and on Tuesday he delivered. The sophomore notched his seventh double-double in the win with a career-high 29 points and 13 rebounds. Crucially, he scored 20 of the team’s 41 second-half points. He sparked a key 9-0 run with second-chance buckets, driving layups, and a 10-11 mark from the free throw line for yet another comeback victory.

“We know we have a target on our back and know it looks good to say, ‘oh we beat Chattanooga,’” Smith said. “We didn’t want to go into the break knowing we let a game slip away where it shouldn’t have.”

Smith’s most impressive moment came in the first half when he swallowed up TSU point guard Mark Freeman (who posted a 20-5-6 line of his own), stole the ball, uncorked a monster of a dunk, got fouled, and hit the free throw.

Senior Stefan Kenic, a Cleveland State transfer in his second season with the Mocs, also chipped in with 16 points and six rebounds, both second-best for Chattanooga in the game.

“Someone said that we aren’t playing for the next eight days, and I was surprised because we play so frequently,” redshirt-freshman Jamaal Walker said. “Someone said that and said we have to end on a good note heading into the break and we knew we had to pick it up. Malachi and the coaches do a great job at that. The team picks each other up and tries to create our own energy.”

After finishing the non-conference season unbeaten, Chattanooga will now move on to the unforgiving SoCon schedule, starting with Furman on Dec. 30. The home date with the Paladins will be their toughest test of the season so far, and if the Mocs find a way to win against one of the conference’s top dogs, more top-150 teams will be waiting throughout the remaining schedule. It’s a gauntlet, and the 9-0 Mocs are just getting started.