Mocs try to over­come ‘decade’s worth of stuff’

Chattanooga Times Free Press - - SPORTS - Mark Wied­mer

It was 2:38 Tues­day af­ter­noon when Keiana Gil­bert limped onto the Maclel­lan Gym floor with the aid of crutches, one of those over­sized, gray plas­tic boots cov­er­ing her right foot. A lit­tle more than an hour later the Univer­sity of Ten­nessee at Chattanooga would send out a news re­lease that the se­nior had been named a first-team All-South­ern Con­fer­ence se­lec­tion by both the me­dia and the coaches.

But that won’t help the Mocs when they open SoCon tour­ney play Thurs­day against UNC Greens­boro in Asheville. Gil­bert won’t suit up for that one. Nei­ther will team­mates Anna Claire Noblit (back), Jacobi Lynn (knee) or Nakia Burks (knee).

And all those in­juries caused some­one to ask UTC as­sis­tant coach Katie Gal­loway Bur­rows if she had any el­i­gi­bil­ity left from her days star­ring for the pro­gram from 2000 to 2004.

Know­ing she was about to suit up for prac­tice, Bur­rows replied with a smile: “No (video) footage of prac­tice to­day. Un­der­stand?”

The UTC men’s team started the sea­son short on ex­pe­ri­ence and num­bers, then watched gifted point guard Rod­ney Chat­man go down with an an­kle sprain a cou­ple of weeks ago.

Look­ing ahead to his team’s tour­na­ment opener Fri­day night against Sam­ford, first-year coach La­mont Paris re­called Tues­day morn­ing how for­mer Mi­ami Heat and Los An­ge­les Lak­ers coach Pat Riley once mo­ti­vated his play­ers by dip­ping his head into a tub of ice wa­ter.

“I al­ways said I wouldn’t do any­thing like that,” Paris said. “But if I knew putting my head in ice wa­ter would help us win this week, I’d do it.”

When you’re the No. 10 seed in a 10-team tour­na­ment, it’s prob­a­bly go­ing to take more than mo­ti­va­tional ploys to cut down the nets.

But the women Mocs aren’t in that boat. In­stead, Gil­bert has won each of the first three SoCon tour­na­ments she’s played in. Coach Jim Foster has an even bet­ter run go­ing, hav­ing won all four of the pre­vi­ous league tour­neys he’s coached in.

But as Foster also said Tues­day of this bruised and bat­tered sea­son: “The na­ture of this sea­son has been, ‘What’s next? What else can hap­pen?’ This has been a decade’s worth of stuff, not one year.”

And yet when asked who might pos­si­bly step in for Gil­bert, at least against UNCG, Foster also showed why he has more than 900 vic­to­ries and is a mem­ber of the Hall of Fame.

“It’s a group,” he said of his team. “(We need) a lit­tle bit more from ev­ery­body.”

Aryanna Gil­bert is ac­tu­ally a year older than her sis­ter Keiana. An in­jury forced her to red­shirt one year. While Keiana made first team all-con­fer­ence, Aryanna earned third-team honors.

Re­call­ing last year’s im­prob­a­ble SoCon tour­ney cham­pi­onship win against Mercer af­ter the Mocs trailed by 10 en­ter­ing the fi­nal pe­riod, A. Gil­bert said, “Coach just sat us down and told us, ‘If you want to win, you’ve got to grind.’ He just al­ways gets us ready. He knows ex­actly what to say to get us go­ing.”

Not that Foster’s Mocs don’t have at least one su­per­sti­tion/ tra­di­tion to get them­selves go­ing this time of year.

“Be­fore every tour­na­ment game we do a group dance,” Aryanna said. “And that’s the only time of the year we do it, just at tour­na­ment time.”

It cer­tainly has ap­peared to work. UTC en­ters Thurs­day’s game hav­ing won five straight SoCon women’s tour­neys. The Mocs are clearly com­fort­able with the pres­sure, not that Foster ad­mits to feel­ing much.

“Pres­sure is when you didn’t study for the fi­nal exam,” he said. “When you haven’t put in the work. We’ve put in the work.”

Asked if this is his fa­vorite time of the year, Foster swiftly replied, “Oh, yeah. By far.”

Then he talked about how it’s just bas­ket­ball for him and his team this week. No long bus rides. No dis­trac­tions. Only a SoCon tour­ney ti­tle to de­fend. Just him and the team, their friends, fam­i­lies and sup­port­ers on a very im­por­tant busi­ness trip.

“I’ve got a great ticket man­ager,” Foster said with a grin. “A per­son who takes care of ev­ery­thing I need. Her name is (wife) Donna.”

He re­turned to the only other time this year he had such a sce­nario this sea­son, re­call­ing the Mocs’ Mu­sic City Chal­lenge ex­pe­ri­ence in Nashville. Then, as now, they faced the prospect of play­ing three games in one venue in one week­end. They won all three, tak­ing down North­west­ern, Georgetown and Auburn.

Of course, Keiana wasn’t on crutches then. Bur­rows wasn’t forced back onto the court 14 years af­ter her fi­nal game in or­der to help the team prac­tice. A decade’s worth of stuff hadn’t yet swarmed like lo­custs over the pro­gram in a span of three months.

“A lot of peo­ple are look­ing at us as the un­der­dog this year,” Aryanna said. “And we ob­vi­ously miss (Keiana’s) pres­ence. But a lot of peo­ple have stepped up.”

Now if they could just find three more games of el­i­gi­bil­ity for their Coach Bur­rows to step back onto the court as a player for more than prac­tice.

Con­tact Mark Wied­mer at mwied­mer@times­freep­ress.com.

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