Too much Mayo leaves sour taste for Mocs
A strong first-half performance on both ends of the court turned sour in the second half for the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga men’s basketball team, which squandered a nine-point halftime lead and lost 81-78 to Eastern Kentucky in the Mocs’ home opener Saturday night at McKenzie Arena.
EKU (1-1) was led by senior Nick Mayo, who scored 35 of his 40 points in the second half and added 12 rebounds to break the Mocs’ hearts after they led by as many as 13 points in the opening period of play.
“We knew what he could do, and we addressed the fact that he’s about to break the school record in scoring and he’s a first-team all-league player for three years in a row,” UTC coach Lamont Paris said. “We talked about sending help and paying attention, and we did not do a good job with that at all. That was a disappointment.”
The Mocs (1-1) withstood the Colonels’ swarming pressure early, turning those breaks into easy buckets and getting Mayo into early foul trouble. But once he got going, the Colonels made sure he got the ball often.
“At halftime, we all put an emphasis on getting going, and I made some shots and got hot,” Mayo said. “My teammates saw it, my coach saw it, and I was just able to get the looks that I wanted.”
Multiple Mocs got into foul trouble and EKU was in the bonus at the freethrow line with more than 14 minutes to play in the game. The pressure also forced UTC into 20 turnovers for the game.
“We had multiple guys who did not respond to the pressure well,” Paris said. “We were getting the ball in the back court and making one dribble and picking up the ball. Then you have two guys on you and guys who are open are not in a place where you can receive the ball. We were not as aggressive as we needed to be to come and get the ball.”
UTC big man Thomas Smallwood — who led the Mocs in the first half with 10 points — picked up his fourth foul with more than nine minutes remaining. He finished with 12 points before fouling out with 2:29 to go.
“I think I did pretty much what I wanted to do in the first half by getting the ball and getting a couple of fouls on (Mayo) to get him off the court,” he said. “But I think I relaxed a little bit around halftime, and he’s a good player. I knew he was going to come at me for the whole game, and I needed to carry on like I did in the first half.”
Freshman forward Kevin Easley led UTC with 22 points, and fellow newcomer Maurice Commander added 16 points. Easley and Commander each added six rebounds as well. Junior Jonathan Scott added 10 points to give UTC four players in double figures. The Mocs shot 47.2 percent from the field but were just 9-for-24 shooting in the second half.
“I think this was just us being young as a team,” Easley said. “I think we learned a lot. This was our first time actually dealing with pressure. We just need to take better shots.”
Paris said Mayo’s potential to take over the game didn’t come as a surprise. He’s closing in on the career scoring record for EKU, and he was coming off a 26-point, 15-rebound performance in a loss to Marshall on Wednesday. However, the bigger issue for the second-year UTC coach was the Mocs poor composure against EKU’s press.
“In the second half, we weren’t aggressive and we weren’t attacking,” he said. “We were tentative, and then that’s what the press does. They get a couple of turnovers that turn into buckets and then they’re on a run. It just snowballed on us.”
The Mocs will be back in action at home Tuesday against Cumberland, and Smallwood thinks they can take lessons from Saturday’s loss as well as their season-opening win at Charlotte, a win that looks even better after the 49ers rallied for a 66-64 win over Oklahoma State on Saturday.
“I think there’s still a lot of good to take after the win at Charlotte, especially after tonight,” Smallwood said. “As Coach said, we’re going to have to ride the wave a little bit. It’s not all bad. We’re a young team, and you can learn from losses.
“So as long as everyone is aware of that, we can learn a lot from tonight. Including that a lead at halftime doesn’t mean much.”
UTC’s Kevin Easley scores over Eastern Kentucky’s Jordan Oakley during Saturday’s 81-78 loss at McKenzie Arena. Easley led the Mocs with 22 points.