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NCAA Tournament rewind: Chattanooga makes 1997 Sweet 16 as 14 seed

Chattanooga knocks off Georgia and Illinois in 1997 in a its March moment

Providence V Texas at Chattanooga
Chattanooga senior forward Johnny Taylor

With Chattanooga’s epic win in the SoCon Tournament last week in overtime over No. 2 Furman, it’s time to look back at the Mocs’ greatest March moment as a Division I program.

Let’s travel back to 1997 for what was a truly magical March for the Mocs, as they went on to the Sweet Sixteen, marking the first SoCon team to accomplish that feat in a 64-team format.

Mack McCarthy’s Model

Chattanooga legendary head coach Mack McCarthy was an innovator of sorts in the SoCon.

Though he didn't go on to bigger and better things as a head coach after his time in the Scenic City (like Steve Forbes did at East Tennessee State when leaving for Wake Forest after five-year run in Johnson City), McCarthy blazed a trail through the SoCon in a similar fashion to that of Forbes.

It was a culture at that point in time built on developing JUCO players and uses having a unique eye for the right pieces to fit the Mocs system. McCarthy also had the right amount of four-year guys to form a perfect mix.

Players like point guard Wes Moore exemplified more of the Mocs identity as a team, despite the fact that UTC had two great players that cold take over a basketball game in future lottery pick Johnny Taylor and super-scoring guard Willie Young.

Taylor, a product of the prestigious Indian Hills Community College, came at an era in SoCon history when the league first started to get some really high-profiled JUCO transfers.

When Taylor arrived in November of 1995, it came just after another much ballyhooed JUCO had come through the SoCon and parlayed it into an NBA Draft selection, as dynamic scorer Frankie King along with Taylor helped blaze a trail that has become a goldmine for certain schools in the league to present day.

Moore was heady, tough and had a strong awareness at the point. Not only did he shoot the ball well, he also made good decisions when distributing it. Moore was the truest example of a diamond in the rough that developed into a star guard in a system that placed more of a value on two-year players, rather than developed four-year veterans.

Young went on to finish ninth in a single-season in 3-pointers made, canning 62 triples, and he ended up averaging 14.2 PPG at season’s end, and ranked among the top of the SoCon in steals and assists.

Isaac Connor, who was a reliable sophomore, proved he could also be an asset shooting the trey, and by the time the lanky Connor graduated in 1999, he ranked fifth in program history in triples made with 149.

Then there was Chris Mims. The kid from Alabama who took nothing off of anyone—a tough, hard-nosed athletic kid who would not be denied on the offensive or defensive end when it came to grabbing a rebound. With white socks pulled up high and tremendous athleticism play bigger than his 6-foot-5-inch height at the four.

Chattanooga stumbled at its first Southern Conference hurdle—a 90-83 loss at the Cam Henderson Center to the Mocs top challenger, Marshall, two days prior to Christmas.

People were starting to wonder if the Mocs would ever live up to the expectations bestowed upon them when Taylor arrived from Indian Hills a year earlier in Nov. of 1995. That’s because the Mocs had done nothing to wow folks with their on-court play.

In fact, from Nov. 25, 1995-Dec. 29, 1996, the Mocs had posted just a 19-19 mark overall and had a long way to go if they were going to live up to their preseason status as Southern Conference favorites.

The Mocs reached a low-point and eventual turning point in that 1996-97 campaign following a home loss to Canisius in the Dr. Pepper Classic, which was a tournament Chattanooga almost always dominated.

It would seemingly all come together with the turn of the calendar and the start of SoCon play,

The Mocs dominated the Furman Paladins 81-45. It was apparent that this Chattanooga chance had a chance to be special.

Indeed Taylor and the Mocs were special. It didn’t take this bunch much to play basketball at an exceptionally high level.

Oddly enough, the winning streak came to an end against an East Tennessee State team struggling to rebuild its program, which was a team that won just seven games during that particular season, including just two in league play.

Chattanooga ended up posting two more 30-point wins early in league play, defeating Wofford by 37 and East Tennessee State by 30. The Mocs average margin of victory during league play was an astounding 20.2 PPG.

However in the rematch with ETSU, the Bucs claimed a 70-69 win in overtime. That was one of its three Southern Conference losses as the Mocs won the South Division by a significant margin.

When Chattanooga parked its bus in the loading dock at the 1997 SoCon Tournament at the Greensboro Coliseum, the Mocs opened the tournament with a tricky matchup against VMI.

The Mocs looked the part of tournament favorite in the quarterfinal of the SoCon Tournament, with an 84-62 win over the upstart Keydets.

In the semifinal round, UTC faced a tricky contest against Bob McKillop’s Davidson Wildcats. McKillop, who of course is now a Davidson legend, was managing another good season despite having to rebuild somewhat from a team that had won 25 games a year earlier.

In a battle of SoCon heavyweights, McCarthy’s refined JUCO transfers got the better of McKillop's young, but fundamentally developed players in a hard-fought game at the penultimate hurdle for Chattanooga.

The Mocs held on for a 77-70 win over the Wildcats. It set up the championship everyone in the Southern Conference wanted to see, which would between McCarthy’s Mocs Chattanooga vs. Marshall.

Chattanooga posted a 71-70 overtime win over the Thundering Herd in a classic between the two rivals. It was the final game for Marshall as a SoCon member as it moved on to Conference USA the following season.

The 14th-sseded Mocs draw No. 3 Georgia in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

Georgia was under the direction of Tubby Smith at the time and had a several talented scorers with forwards Michael Chadwick and Derrick Dukes leading the way, averaging 12.4 PPG and 10.4 PPG, respectively.

The Mocs were up for the challenge in the opening clash with the No. 3 Bulldogs and claimed a 73-70 win. That meant the Mocs would face off against the winner of No. 6 Illinois and No. 11 Southern California.

Following the win, the Mocs could hear the Illinois team in the adjacent locker room chanting “Sweet Sixteen”...“Sweet Sixteen.” and then were also singing the CBS March Madness song in between.

According to Mocs former head coach Mack McCarthy, it sounded as if the Illini were having their own kind of pep rally in the locker room.

The Big Ten member thought all it needed to do was defeat Southern California in its first game, and it was as good as in the Sweet Sixteen because no one thought they would lose to the Mocs. However, Chattanooga didn’t see it the same way.

It was all Chattanooga needed. No motivational speech from McCarthy. In fact, he just let them listen the Illini chanting and carrying on even though his pregame speech was still almost 48 hours away.

It would be Illinois that Chattanooga would face in round two. An alley-oop from Wes Moore to Antikoye Oloko provided the emphactic finishing touch to the Mocs’ 75-63 upset win.

The statement win was one that helped serve as a defining moment for a program that had a lot of success in the SoCon during its two decades in the league, but other than an NCAA Tournament win over NC State some 14 years earlier, had done little before a national audience on the biggest of stages.

In the win, McCarthy’s coaching brilliance would show through in the final eight minutes, as UTC trailed Illinois, 59-55. First, McCarthy took a risk by putting Willie Young back into the game with four fouls, which he had picked up 13:25 left.

McCarthy did his best Jim Boeheim impersonation in the final seven minutes, implementing the amoeba, 1-1-3 zone defense to confuse the Illini. It was a stroke of brilliance to use the length and athleticism of his team to bother Illinois, and the Illini did not score during a 6:31 stretch, providing enough time for the Mocs to come back and to secure the 12-point win.

Despite sitting on the bench for a long period of time, Young still led UTC with 15 points, while Mims added a big double-double of 12 and 12 rebounds. Marquis Collier and Taylor also added a dozen.

UTC faced another upset-minded program from a major conference in Big East member Providence, in the Sweet Sixteen in Birmingham, Ala. Providence, who entered the NCAA Tournament as the No. 10 seed, had taken down No. 7 Marquette in the opening round and No. 2 Duke in the second round.

The Mocs dream season came to an end against the Friars, who claimed a 71-65 win. Though no one knew to what extent at the time, the loss to the Friars signaled the end of the greatest chapter of basketball in program history.

This story makes for a really cool background story heading into this year’s NCAA Tournament, as the No. 13 Mocs will face off against the No. 4 Illinois Fighting Illinois Friday night in Pittsburgh, with tip-off set for 6:50 p.m. EST.