Mocs try to overcome ‘decade’s worth of stuff’
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.