Chattanooga — Even with a 47-point lead and less than three minutes to play, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga basketball coach John Shulman found it difficult to relax Tuesday night.
Losing seven of your first nine games at a tradition-rich program such as UTC can do that to a guy.
So with 2:54 on the clock, Shulman got a technical foul. And Division III member Spalding, located in Louisville, crept within 46 by making one of its two free throws.
Fortunately for the short-term mental health of both Shulman and his team, the Mocs held on to win by 50 — 98-48.
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Perhaps it's cruel and unusual punishment to remind them that come Saturday night inside Rupp Arena, they're going from Division III to No. 3 when they visit the Kentucky Wildcats.
"There's been a lot of stress," Shulman said. "Our kids are a little like me, which isn't good. They want to please everybody. They know we were picked to win the SoCon, and we're 3-and-7. So right now they feel like they've let everybody down."
Despite an official attendance of 2,155, McKenzie Arena literally echoed with that belief against the Golden Eagles. It's almost as if the fan base has skipped apathetic and moved directly to absent, which is never a good thing.
Can the Mocs look like a different team against somebody their own size and skill level? Just how much did this mismatch help? And just how much stress have the players felt during the recent four-game losing streak?
"Some players have definitely felt the stress," said point guard Keegan Bell, whose eight assists leave him two behind Tim Brooks' and Wes Moore's 414 each for most in the Division I era. "No matter what anybody says, you feel the pressure. John's our coach. A lot of us are here because we want to play for him. You want to win for him."
Yet Bell was also a member of a Vanderbilt team that won in Lexington during his freshman season with the Commodores. He knows you can't enter Rupp feeling tight and have any chance.
"You see Kentucky on the schedule at the start of the year and you get excited," Bell said. "You have that game circled. At the same time, you've got to stay focused on what you do. You've just got to play your game. You've got to relax and let it go out there. Just have fun."
Bell and Shulman said that was the biggest benefit to playing Spalding.
"It was important for us to get better," Bell said. "Now we have to believe we can do something special."
Added Shulman: "We've been in a funk all year. ... I didn't care if it was (Shulman's sons) Max, Tanner and J.C. out there, we needed to have success."
Spalding Coach Kevin Gray compared UTC favorably to Coastal Carolina, which not only beat Spalding but also beat both Clemson and LSU this season.
"I thought UTC's guards were actually better than Coastal Carolina's," Gray said. "If they play like they did tonight, they'll get an opportunity to be a pretty good basketball team."